Wino's Shadow by Gabriel Hart
No one really wants to know anybody in Los Angeles, not who they really are beneath their masks. That’s why the anti-social types go to Happy Hour, to escape, not be bothered. It’s a quirk native to that city — even with drink specials, an L.A. bar can’t attract a crowd at 5pm. No one wants to be caught dead early to the nightlife — if you’re not fashionably late to anything, it looks like you had nothing better to do. Like you maybe didn’t put on enough make-up.
She gave herself one last look in a rear-view of a new Toyota Camry parked and ticketed in the alley of The Powerhouse bar. “Ugh, honey — you got so sweaty out there,” she whispered, applying more foundation that kept turning to angel food batter on her cheeks.
Inside, Carter Campbell sat at the bar, on his second Greyhound at 5:16. He swiveled his head around, surveying the room through its dim lighting, trying to zero in on the usual suspects — the real alcoholics who needed the two-hour window just to deal with the gravity of nightfall.
“Where’s, uh… that one thing tonight?” he asked the bartender.
“You know, that… I don’t know whether it’s a guy or a girl…”
“Listen, if you’re talking about Amy, have some fucking class and don’t call her an ‘it,’ okay? If someone has the skill to wear a mini-skirt and heels as well as Amy does, well I’d call that a woman. End of story.”
Carter put his palms up in surrender. “Man, I apologize. I didn’t mean any disrespect. It’s just hard to get used to…”
“There’s nothing to ‘get used to,’ said the bartender. He mimicked Carter’s palms up, shaking them into insulting jazz-hands. “At the end of the day, Amy’s more welcomed here than you are. Hell, she practically lives here.”
Barely a beat and the doors swung open.
“I TOLD YOU… I WAS TROUBLE!!!” Amy’s arms hung in crucified pageantry at the entrance. Eyes: wing tipped. Black beehive, red lipstick on a triumphant grin relishing in the sparse applause from the three other regulars. The bartender clapped the loudest.
“Amy! Go good out there I take it?”
“Honey, you know I’m no good,” she said, striding to the bar. “But yeah, you can say I did good!” Her hands scrambled then emerged from her purse, fanning out a peacock tail of cash.
“All right, baby, said the bartender. “Here’s your victory cola, on the house!”
“Now just ‘cause I had a good day, don’t go sneaking booze in there, you know I don’t like that shit anymore!”
“Never. Not until the day you tell me to again, Amy.”
Carter smirked. He was starting to get it — he even had a copy of “Back to Black” out in his car, one of his favorite albums. He caught Amy’s eye, motioning her to waddle over.
“Hey, I’ve seen you so many times and it’s just now dawning on me — you’re trying to be Amy Winehouse, right?”
Amy scoffed. “Ugh, trying? Honey, just because you have a profound spiritual and karmic connection with someone doesn’t mean you’re trying to be like them!”
“Oh, shit… sorry. Didn’t mean to offend.”
“Well, you bloody did!”
“Oh, you got the British accent and everything? Nice. So, you’re like, trans?
“Transcontinental, maybe!” she said. “But my personality’s so large it jumps the fucking ocean, so of course I’m gonna have a bit of a British accent.”
“So, wait… where are you from originally?”
“I’m from Amy, baby. You can say she gave birth to me.”
“Okay, fine — but what state?”
“State…” she rolled her eyes. “Amy is a state. A state of mind. A state of fashion. State of the art. A state of just… being!”
Carter realized he was out of his element, his curiosity making a fool of himself. He focused his attention on finishing his drink instead. Amy stirred her Coke, took a bit of the maraschino, then swallowed the whole thing — quickly realizing she was starved for attention, not candied fruit.
“Okay fine, nosy! I was born in Kansas City.”
Carter was distracted, ordering another Greyhound.
‘I said I was born in Kansas City!”
“Oh, sorry…” he said, facing her again. “That’s cool, what side?”
“Well, for a while there it was the sui-cide…”
He got nervous. “Well, whatever side, it’s a great border city.”
‘Oh yeah, all the doctors call me Borderline, that must be why. Always on the edge, baby!”
Carter smirked. Amy is hilarious, he thought — but also, totally fucking serious, isn’t she?
“Right on. So, what brought you to L.A., Amy?”
“You know, just to be myself, really.” Her accent had gone full slobbering cockney. She launched into press interview mode. “Once I really started coming into my own in KC, I had a harder time being who I really am. See, I prefer to be the loudest one in the room. I started running out of places that would let me. I was kicked out of every bar in town. I was putting all the sass in Kan-sass, it was a lot of work. But they didn’t know real talent when they see it, so I left. They didn’t deserve me anyway.
“Got it. But why do you even hang out in bars — looks like you don’t drink?” he said, pointing to her Roy Rodgers.
“Oh, that’s just for now. It’s only because Amy is in trouble — she’s trying to get sober for real this time, you know? I don’t want to be a bad influence on her.”
“You mean, the real Amy Winehouse, right?”
Amy looked up, then down. “I mean both of us. When I say ‘Amy,’ I speak for two. Two black hearts that beat as one.”
Carter was really getting it now, coming to acceptance. He didn’t quite know what to say next, but Amy took care of the silence.
“See, The Powerhouse here is like my office. You’ll usually see me here every other hour to take a break, unless I’m really moved by the spirit out there.”
“Oh, our little runway — right in front of Mann’s Chinese, sometimes in front of Hollywood and Highland.”
Another constellation formed in Carter’s nodding head. He knew that pseudo-iconic scene where the impersonators preyed on gawking tourists, hustling them for a paid photo op. There was the arrogant glassy-eyed Superman, the Batman with anger-management issues, a couple rivaling Marilyn Monroes who split the am/pm shifts to stay out of each other’s wigs, then the near-perfect Captain Jack Sparrow, who was ravenously popular since Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides had just come out that May.
“Aha, got it,” he said, throwing back a hearty gulp of the Greyhound. “That’s some stiff competition over there. How does Winehouse compete with Jack fucking Sparrow?”
“Oh, we don’t! I hang to myself and just sing my little heart out — not like those fools in Under-roos have any real talent, so I kinda stand out. The crowd I get might be a little smaller but it’s much hipper. And since I’m still alive — a real live pop star — you know a lot of them are taking those photos and telling people they really met me.”
“Ha! Right. If you’re putting one over on people, why shouldn’t they?” Carter began raising his glass to Amy’s; she appeared to be obliging his toast until she kept raising it to his face.
“Honey, the only thing I’m gonna put over anyone is this drink over your head if you don’t stop disrespecting me.”
“Woah, hold on… stop. Listen, I’m sorry. Really.” He changed his approach — he wasn’t playing the game as well as he thought. “I haven’t even had the chance to tell you what a big fan I am of yours.”
Amy blushed, on queue. “Oh, is that right? What’s your favorite song?”
“Well… let’s just say I’ve actually been to “Rehab” and I’ve gone “Back to Black,” so those two songs cut particularly deep for me.”
“Aw, you good now though, right?” she said, her first signs of genuine care told him he had broken a wall down with his opening up.
“Yeah, I think so. Booze helps. Until it doesn’t.”
“Ain’t that the truth. No matter what you love, you love it too much — it’s a losing game.”
He wouldn’t dare call her an act at this point, but Carter was impressed with her lines, the way she was flipping Winehouse song titles into little bits of nihilist philosophy. Is it even an act when you’re always “on?” he wondered.
“So where do you live, Amy?”
She opened her mouth. Nothing came out.
“Like, you know… what part of town?”
She whipped her head to the side, bangs veiling her eyes.
“I live… in me?” she said, cocking one eye through her jet-black hair. “I live in Amy. Wino’s my religion, therefore my body and clothes are my temple. My church. My shelter.”
Carter ordered another drink, downed it in two gulps. Even with the lush cushion of vodka drowning his mind, he was disarmed — Amy was sort of breaking his heart. He noticed it was sprinkling outside, against the windows. Saved by the rain.
“Well, speaking of shelter, I should get going home before that rain gets too crazy,” he said, tonguing the last drips from his ice.
“I feel you. I’ll walk you out,” she said.
Carter paid his tab, offering to pay for Amy’s. The bartender smiled, one hand gesturing, “Nah, that’s sweet but we got her.”
The two emerged into the alley into a mounting downpour. “Damn!” said Carter. “Guess June Gloom turned into June Hysterics, huh?”
“Sure, but my name ain’t June, baby,” said Amy, winking. “You know that by now. By the way, what’s your name?”
“Oh, it’s Carter. Carter Campbell.”
“All right Carter Campbell. I’m gonna call you CC.”
“Ha, that’s cool with me, A-Dub.” Carter’s smile quickly grimaced. “Ah man, what the fuck!” He grabbed the ticket off his windshield wiper.
“Oh no! I saw that on my way in, didn’t realize it was your car…”
“I just fucking bought this thing too…”
She noticed the “Back to Black” CD on his passenger seat. “Oh yeah, 2011? Well, you might just get some pennies from heaven, then. Just like the rain, tears gonna dry on their own.”
“How much is the ticket, CC?”
He unfolded the flimsy paper. “Fucking sixty bucks!”
She reached into her purse, flipped through her flush stack. She extended three crisp twenties into his hand.”
“What is this? Nah, I can’t let you do this, Amy.”
“You didn’t let me do anything, CC. It’s already done,” she said, winking with a smirk. She turned around, shielding her towering Bump-it from the rain with her purse, began walking off.
“Hey! Can I at least give you a ride somewhere?”
Her one hand gestured, “Nah that’s sweet but I got me…”
Carter leaned against his bumper. He stared at the three twenties, dumbfounded by the kindness, yet unsettled by it. He had a good-paying job downtown, yet an eccentric homeless person just turned him into a charity case. He didn’t feel above it — he felt unworthy.
He thought quick: If she’s going back to work the tourists in the rain like this, I’ll somehow disguise myself and just give it back to her.
He stuck the ticket back on his windshield. He ran to the corner, saw she was just crossing Highland. He sprinted to the corner store — one of those cheap tourist shops — grabbed a blue Dodgers umbrella, handed the clerk one of the twenties, grabbed the three fives back. He walked back outside, looked to the right — he could still see her pink outfit darting through the foot traffic, crowds scrambling to escape the rain.
Carter frantically unbuttoned the umbrella as he ran to catch up with her. It bloomed open like a Morning Glory as he crossed Highland, right in time — he noticed Amy stopping a block ahead in front of the mall. She grabbed a glass jar from a planter, then posted up against the marble to get in her groove.
Carter leaned his umbrella forward to conceal her potential view. But her voice made its way to his ears — the opening line of “Tears Dry on Their Own,” the perfect tune to garner sympathy in the rare L.A. downpour. “All I can ever be to you/is the darkness we once knew/and this deep regret I had to get accustomed to.”
What her voice lacked in tonal accuracy, she made up for it in volume. Slightly more baritone but in the pocket. In fact, Amy had more control and anchor to her voice than the real “thing,” a brassy sweep of devoted emotion not about to be drowned out by the monsoon hitting the pavement, nor the booming thunder above. By the time she kicked the chorus in, Amy had drawn a crowd of five people as Carter walked into shrouded view.
He lifted his umbrella to get a view of her tip jar, took a few steps forward, put all three twenties back to its source. He was just stepping back to give her voice the space it deserved, when another voice behind him cat-called Amy, mocking her performance. It was a young couple, day-drunk, heckling Amy through an amoral meat-grinder.
She stopped. “Excuse me?”
The hip couple laughed. “Sorry, but you’re actually too good! It’s not really accurate.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” she said, hand on hip.
“Oh… you didn’t see Winehouse’s performance last night, the one from Belgrade?”
“Uh, nooo… I was busy!”
“Well, she fucking blew it!” the guy said. “She’s either back on the sauce or back on dope or both, but she was out there just… out of it. Couldn’t sing, or even remember her own words…”
“He’s trying to say that she was fucking retarded!” said the girl, her guy covering her mouth. The couple began a shameful struggle until the girl wiggled out of his grasp.
“No! I want to show this bitch how she was acting on stage so she can learn!”
The girl stomped up to Amy, bellowing cruel moans into her face as tears welled up, her red lips wincing, her persona crumbling. Carter panicked behind his own blue wall of coverage. What he meant to be a chivalrous act had become one of cowardice — he bailed, conflicted, convincing himself the anonymous payback was more vital than defending her dignity. The more the rain beat down, the harder he scolded himself, all the way back to his car.
On July 23rd, Carter found himself in his usual seat at the bar of the Powerhouse, doing what he’d been doing every week — consoling Amy for her recent bad streak that began a month prior with that fucking drunk white bitch. “I should have just fucking hit her, but instead I hit the bottle,” she said, lifting her rum and Coke. “Now look, still fuckin’ hittin’ it…”
“Here, hit this,” said Carter, clinking his glass to hers. “Listen, give yourself a break. Nothing wrong with having a damned drink. Just quit demonizing the stuff — that’s when it gets its real power over you. When was the last time you’ve even paid for one, anyway? People love you, Amy. We love you. You just gotta live where the love is.”
She flashed him a ghost of a smile. “Aw, thanks CC. You know I appreciate that. It’s not even that I feel like I’m slippin, more like I’m sliding away…”
“Pfft, I’ll say. Now you’re quoting that Paul Simon dork instead of our beloved Winehouse? Careful!” he said, a joking glare that finally got her to laugh, though she couldn’t maintain eye contact.
“Hey Amy, can I ask why you keep looking over to that table in the corner?”
She did that thing — opened her mouth but no words came out. She shook her head, loosening her lines.
“Oh, you mean at Jim and Cisco right there?”
“Uh, I guess? I didn’t know you knew ‘em. Seems like every time they’re here they’re giving you stink eye.”
“Oh, they’re just sore I don’t talk to them anymore. Long story, don’t worry about it.”
“Here, watch my drink, I’m gonna take a leak,” he said, tapping his tumbler.
Amy nodded, finally making eye-contact as he got up, whipping her head right back to Jim and Cisco. Once she got their attention, she held up a twenty like ringing a bell. They smiled, motioning her over.
Carter entered the one-stall restroom that reeked of vomit and wet tobacco, only accentuated by the mentholated urinal cake he was pissing on. He had switched to beer since he was in for a long night at the bar, making his stream longer than usual. He checked his phone, right to Twitter, his compulsive habit even when he had a spare couple seconds. That’s all the time it took to see it.
Amy Winehouse, dead at 27.
He nearly dropped it his phone, his private world colliding with international headlines. The thought of Amy — both of them — scared him into paralysis as he held his cock, which was quickly turning into the world’s tiniest violin, as they say. He snapped out of it, put it away, zipped up his pants, walking through a thick psychic gravity as he made his way back to the bar where he’d have to tell Amy the bad news.
It was already on the TV. She was already crying. The bartender was already giving her another rum and Coke, turning the volume up with the other. Jim and Cisco’s yellowed teeth, already clenched.
There was nothing to say that a silent embrace couldn’t say better. Carter walked up to Amy, put his arms around her, his chin in her nape. It only made her bawl harder. Devastated, then embarrassed she was being such an open wound, she removed her face from her palms.
“Keep ‘em coming! Two more!” she said, her voice quivering strangely, a reveal of buried baritone. It was the first time Carter or the bartender heard her drop the accent.
“Whatever you need, Amy. Just let us know…” Carter and the bartender’s sentiments overlapped into blurry inflections, submitting to the malaise.
“I need this to not be my fault! Why do I feel like this is all my fault?” she said, throwing back the stiff drink, her Adam’s apple undulating over the flood.
“Wait, why would you say this is your fault?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she said. Despite her slurring, Carter knew it was the truth.
“Amy, you wanna get up front there and do a song?” asked the bartender.
“I thought I wasn’t allowed anymore!”
“I’m the boss here and I say you can, just for tonight. Let it out.”
“Hell yeah, Amy. This is your moment. Do it for Amy,” said Carter. He was rubbing her back for both encouragement and concern, the way she kept slurring. “What’s that? What are you trying to say?”
“I said, ‘everything I fucking do is for Amy,’ idiot! Fine, I’m going up!”
She threw her purse on the bar, wiggled off her stool. She stumbled once, nearly turning her ankle in her high heel. The Powerhouse had gotten crowded since Carter’s bathroom break, heads turned as she made her way through the crowd, up to the front by Jim and Cisco’s table. She hesitated, knowing they’d be front row for this. “Fuck it!”, she said, forgetting her thoughts had escaped the confines of her head.
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out — a sudden deer in headlights seeing how many people there were, transfixed on her, on what was about to happen. She’d never had this much immediate attention in front of Mann’s Chinese. And right now, there was no more competition — she was the only Amy.
She began to belt, a combination of two songs, stumbling over the lyrics, forgetting which one she meant to do. Then she stopped, confused what she was doing up there.
“You got this, Amy! We got you!” hollered Carter.
But she didn’t have it. She’d merely had herself. Her, in her sexy nurse Halloween outfit she bought at Hollywood Toy and Costume that she dyed pink, written Amy in Sharpie above the breast pocket, her Bump-It unraveling behind like a comet trail lost its luster.
She tried again, but all that came out were determined moans before the only decipherable line:
“I died a hundred times!”
Then a burp.
“What the fuck is this!” someone yelled. “This is in such bad taste, the poor woman just fucking died! Have some respect!”
“Yeah, real class act, bitch!” someone else said, twisting the knife.
“It ain’t an act!” said Cisco, raising an eyebrow. He signaled Jim to the door, that they should be leaving, like now.
Amy deflated in tears, too weak to defend herself, much less stand. So, she tried walking, but she moved too fast and fell to a kneel.
“Ha! At least she brought someone to her knees in here!” someone yelled.
“Hey! Fuck off you piece of shit!” said Carter, running to peel her off the floor. She put her arms around him, a fleeting sense of safety. She smirked as he pulled her back to her feet, a puppeteer leading her back to the bar where she put her head down, resting on her arms.
“You all right”” he whispered into her ear.
She nodded her head, slowly, wishing she could tell him thank you, that no one had ever stuck up for her like that, that he was her best friend, that she wished he would just kiss her, if not tonight, then maybe one night, but for now, she was just so tired, so no words would come out of her mouth.
“Just… let her sleep it off,” the bartender said, scrunching his nose.
Carter’s one hand remained on her back for comfort, the other with the bartender’s remote. He toggled between the news channels, seeing who had the latest developments, who was best at picking at her bones, when he realized a half-hour had passed. He leaned his head down into Amy’s, whispering her name.
Eyebrows slanted, he quickly put his ear to her mouth.
“Hey! She’s not breathing!”
The bartender got on the phone, hit one-button for 9-11. “The fuck? She only had like, five drinks!” His eyes darted the room for Jim and Cisco, those vulture motherfuckers.
Without hesitation, Carter pulled her to the floor, put his mouth to hers to begin CPR. For a second, her consciousness stirred, just long enough to know she was finally getting what he always wanted, long enough to make one last wish, that in another life, there could have been another way.