Danny Bale leaned against the restroom wall, ran his finger along his wrist.
Running his fingers through his beach-blond hair, he exhaled with a heavy grunt and tilted his head toward the ceiling, the details of which he had surveyed many times before. The circles of water damage. The hole at the edge of a beige panel. An aging light bulb that had developed a mysterious, maize-colored tint. Since his arrival at Sunset Beach, this room had grown familiar. He had branded it into his memory and could re-create it with his eyes closed.
His skin was tanned, a shade between local-light and tourist-brown. Bleached by the penetrating sun, his dark blond hair had developed a bright sheen and shouted his status as a permanent beach dweller. Leaning toward the mirror, he examined the creases that had begun to form along the corners of his eyes. It seemed premature for signs of aging to begin.
Danny felt tired. He blamed it on sleep deprivation, to late nights spent writing after Sunset Beach calmed. But the root of his fatigue didn't result from poor habit or a need for a twenty-seven-hour day. Rather, a pattern of bland constancy had emerged, leaving Danny drained at heart from years of plugging away at his craft and seeing no manifestation of success.
Not that Danny could pinpoint a definition for success.
At first, he had defined it as freedom-one he could obtain by spending his late twenties seaside and inspired. In truth, Danny's heart had departed for the beach long before he did. Prior to his arrival, Danny had invested four years in the college scene, where he had conformed to an uninspired status quo disguised as a ladder to breakthrough. It seemed a lifetime ago.
And now, by age twenty-eight, he'd grown exhausted.
An elusive notion, success.
As he eyed his beaded necklace and linen shirt, Danny wondered how he'd managed to spend another four years of his life at McGrady's. On weekdays and weeknights, he engaged in the mundane work of a cook. But on weekends, McGrady's slated him as its featured entertainment. Danny would strum his acoustic guitar and sing the songs of Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and some original pieces of his own. It provided Danny with a performance outlet. And by the time McGrady's closed for the night, Danny figured, half of the drinkers wouldn't know the difference between songwriters anyway.
Danny jumped at the sudden burst of the restroom door.
"Danny Boy! How's it going, chief?"
Even when he dabbled with subtlety, you couldn't help but notice Jay McGrady's presence. Forgoing college and opting instead for a family business that would one day become his own, Jay earned his living as the McGrady's manager and oddity specialist. On any given day, you could spot him fixing a water pipe or grilling a burger, taking out the trash or chewing out a waitress. But Jay approached it all in good fun.
Danny rubbed his eyes. "Never better. I mean, you've got the water, the ladies. This is paradise, right?"
Jay made his way to the sink and started to wash his hands. As luck would have it this evening, he would assume the role of senior chef, a title he'd created on the fly.
"Man, you should see the woman out there at table eleven," Jay said with a knowing chuckle. "Mmm, she's hot. I'll betcha she's about fifty years old, too." Flipping water from his hands, he wiped them with a paper towel until they were damp at best, then shook his head. "But that guy she's with-I don't understand it, man. What a slob! I mean, his knockers are bigger than hers, my hands were probably cleaner before I started washing 'em-and some dudes are just not meant for biker shorts, you know what I mean?"
"Geez, Jay!" Danny snickered, gritting his teeth. "I hate when you do that. I have to look at these people when I'm out there singing, you know."
"I'm serious, man! How could a woman like that be so hard up?" Jay stretched his arms toward the dingy walls surrounding him. "A prince like me and an inheritance like this place. What more could a woman want!"
"That slob probably owns a hotel down here, Jay!"
A quick chuckle and the fortunate son headed toward the door. "You coming?"
Danny nodded. "Yeah, I'm on my way."
Jay and his mouth departed as swiftly as they had burst in, and a few seconds later, Danny could hear him joking with customers in the hall. An amiable guy, you could always count on Jay for a stupid laugh. Not the intention Jay had in mind, per se, but his speech tended to accelerate faster than his tact. To his credit, the benevolent Jay was also responsible for complimentary rounds of beers among the staff, McGrady's profit-sharing program in its most primitive form. Danny, unlike the other staff members, had developed a solid friendship with Jay over time.
Pounding his fist into his other hand with determination, Danny shook the heaviness from his eyes and walked out the restroom door.
Danny didn't get far. Jay caught him by the sleeve of his shirt and tugged him toward a pair of patrons. "Guys, this is Danny Bale. He's our entertainment for the weekend," Jay said. "Danny, this is Chris Clark and Kyle Clark, two brothers I met on my way to the dining area."
Danny exchanged handshakes with Chris, the older brother, who had blue eyes, brown hair, and an athletic build. "Nice to meet you, Chris. What do you do for a living?"
"I sell document management software," Chris said. "Sales are great, but I was ready for a vacation and convinced my brother to hang out for a week at the beach."
At that, Jay gestured to Kyle with his thumb. "Kyle and I discovered we share some common ground. Tell him, Kyle."
Kyle, who had brown eyes and light red hair, chuckled. "I'm a chef in New York."
"I told him not to be intimidated by the ol' five-star establishment he set foot into here," Jay joshed.
Despite numerous attempts by competitors to challenge its dominance throughout the years, McGrady's remained the most visited restaurant at Destiny Landing, a tourist dive in the heart of Sunset Beach, South Carolina, referred to as "The Landing" by local residents. One of the first businesses to set up shop at the development, McGrady's remained the standard bearer for out-of-towner attraction, though no one could ascertain its appeal-other than the fact that it didn't have a niche appeal. A catch-all establishment, management identified its clientele as casual dates and families, who would arrive sunburned in flip-flops and printed T-shirts purchased at hole-in-the-wall souvenir shops. McGrady's made no effort to impress, and its patrons sunk to meet the challenge.
With a final handshake, Danny wished them well and headed out to the dining area.
With the convergence of the dinner crowd, Danny figured the number of voices had doubled. In the narrow hallway, he nodded to a man and woman engaged in a conversation. A pair of human lobsters, their skin had burned to a wow-that-must-hurt degree. When he entered the dining area and surveyed the range of people in the audience, tiredness dissipated from his body. He sensed a rush of energy, an aggressive rise in the rate at which his blood coursed through his veins.
Danny was home.
He hummed to Dave Matthews Band's "The Best of What's Around," which blared through speakers hung years ago by two teenagers with a roll of twine and a questionable sense of safety. Perched upon metal rafters, the speakers loomed like crows over the talking customers, who ignored them. From a distance, Danny waved at a group of waitresses, tanned beauties who came to Sunset Beach during Spring Break but never bothered to return to the world of academia.
Toward the kitchen, Danny counted a handful of patrons sitting at the bar, but the majority of his audience partook of faux-rustic cuisine at the hut-shaped restaurant. Along the perimeter and throughout the midsection, he watched them eat at tables of various sizes and matching brown tint. Ashen fumes dimmed the room as they crept in a hypnotic blur beneath the overhead lights. In a front corner sat a small platform, occupied by an empty stool and an acoustic guitar, which sat behind a microphone. Two large speakers sat on the stage floor. Tonight it would be Danny's stage.
As Danny walked up the steps and onto the platform, the heat from a single row of tracking lights invigorated his skin like a candle flame. Danny nodded at Jay, who meandered to the side of the room and faded the music to silence. With a thumbs-up signal, Jay departed for the kitchen, leaving Danny alone with the crowd. Danny couldn't help but grin. Grabbing the guitar and tossing the strap over his shoulder, he plugged the instrument into an amplifier and turned toward the microphone.
"Hey everybody, I'm Danny Bale. Welcome to McGrady's!" When he spoke into a microphone, mysterious warmth ensued within him. He couldn't explain its rationale, but something about it always felt right. Unable to determine if he was bathing the air with his voice or vice versa, he perceived a connection with the audience and possessed a keen awareness of when it was mutual.
The audience applauded.
"How you all doing tonight?" Glancing around and catching eyes with a few regulars, his pulse now raced. This was his drug. "Either it's dinner time, or you all heard that Jay McGrady wasn't your entertainment for the night."
As the audience snickered at the lackluster pun, Danny shot a mischievous glare over at Jay, who bowed from behind the kitchen window.
"All right," Danny said. "Let's get cooking."
With delicate care, he began caressing the guitar strings in the key of G. On most occasions, he would launch the evening with a classic rock song-something buzzing with adrenaline, a personification befitting beer and hot wings. Tonight, however, he felt inspired to start slow with a song of his own. And after a few introductory measures, he slid his hot-buttered vocals into the microphone and bore his heart. Danny inhaled the smoke-saturated air and ignited it with the sweet aroma of words on fire.
There's something about her eyes
I can't put my fingers on
It's in the way she looks at me
That keeps me oh so strong
There's something about her eyes
That takes the best of me
It reaches down inside my heart
And conquers me easily
Whenever he gazed at a crowd, he observed the reactions of those who listened. The romantic songs never ceased to amaze him, because with them he witnessed how a casual crowd could morph into a captivated audience. In reality, most customers allowed the music to sweep over their heads and into the hazy milieu. But as he studied through discerning eyes, Danny could spot his music's effect on a handful of people, who would become his core fans for the minutes that followed. He searched for subtle gestures that suggested mood alterations: a tilted head, an arm sliding around a girlfriend's waist, two eyes glimpsing past his guitar and into the depths of his soul. Perhaps his greatest compliment was the woman who failed to notice the delivery of a meal because of an undivided focus on the musical message that emanated. One by one, audience members found themselves distracted from their Friday night conversations and swept into Danny's personal world. Their attention spurred him on. Danny could see his future when he received such feedback-silent, yet undeniable.
Climaxing with a high note and free-falling to a final chord, Danny blushed as the song ended and the muted applause arose.
"Thank you," he said.
As much as he hated to do it, it was inevitable. The mood needed to be broken and an emotional balance maintained-a reminder of why McGrady's drew capacity crowds on Friday nights. After all, this was Sunset Beach, and its visitors had flocked here for two reasons: to get their senses teased and their skin fried.
Danny picked up the tempo and continued his song set as the blend of conversational tones resumed at full volume.
Excerpt Copyright 2012 John Herrick