Rick’s secretary stuck her head around the corner of the office door.

“There’s a Sandy Tambor on line two. She says it’s important. Wasn’t she married to that drummer — ?”

“No,” Rick said, cutting off the question. He picked up the receiver. Be the pro. Be the big shot lawyer.

“This is Richard Stonham. How may I help you?”

“He wants to see you.” Sandy’s voice unleashed an avalanche of memories.

“Yeah, I heard you were taking care of him. Sandy, what’s the connection? You and Marty split up — what, 10 or 12 years now?”

“18, but who’s counting? You know what he can be like. He called, I came.”

“Just like always, right? But I guess you wouldn’t have called if things were getting better.”

“The doctors are talking days, maybe a week. That’s why he asked for you. Can you get down here?”

“It’s been a long time, Sandy. Would it really do any good?”

“Maybe not. But I know you. If you don’t come, you’ll never stop wondering whether you should have.”

“Let me think about it. I’ll get back to you.”

“Think about it fast.” There was a soft click and the phone call was over.

Rick exhaled, replaced the receiver and pressed the intercom button.

“Yes, Rick?”

He ran his hand through his rapidly graying hair. “Get me on the next flight to Jacksonville. And get my wife on the phone.”

On the plane’s Classic Rock audio channel listing, he spotted Out of Luck, the first Cold Rayne album to go platinum. He listened to the title cut, admiring the transition from Marty’s drum work to Jerry’s opening bass line, and was instantly taken back to the North Florida club circuit of the early ’70s.

At 20, Marty Tambor was four years older than Rick and already a respected drummer with recording and production credits under his belt. One night in 1973 Marty dropped into Hank’s Pub. When Rick’s band finished their first set, he introduced himself to Rick, who, although the band’s youngest member, was clearly the source of its raw energy.

The two made an immediate connection. With Marty teaching Rick the business end of music, Rick keeping Marty current on advances in music technology and both developing new material, they quickly became a force on the local scene and their celebrity was beginning to expand across the Southeast.

“Definitely moving up the ladder, brother,” Marty said. “Once you get out of high school, there’ll be no stopping us.”

Within three years, they had formed a new band — Sawgrass — with Rick as drummer and Marty sitting in on occasion while aggressively pursuing a major label contract. Rick found the first love of his life in Sandy Shipp, a heartbreakingly beautiful soother of young lost souls.

Life was good.

Until Rick rolled up to Marty’s condo at 6 a.m. with a new arrangement and spotted Sandy’s car in the guest parking spot. Sandy had moved on to soothe Marty’s young lost soul, but had left Rick’s in tatters.

A few weeks later, when Marty announced that Cold Rayne — Sawgrass’s new incarnation — had nailed down the recording deal he’d been looking for, Rick’s brush with near-fame was done. Marty Tambor replaced Rick as drummer in a move as calculated and sudden as a rattler’s strike. At 19, Rick hung up his drumsticks and walked away from the music forever.

It was cold comfort that Cold Rayne’s first album sold 750,000 copies and Rick received writer’s royalties on five songs. The ¬Out of Luck LP, which shipped 4,000,000 copies worldwide, helped finance his legal education, which he parlayed into a name partnership at Stonham, Aspal and Trent, the boutique Princeton law firm.

With 26 albums, uncounted concerts, and seemingly endless airplay, Cold Rayne’s place in the rock stratosphere was the stuff of legend. As the plane began its descent into Jacksonville, Rick wondered if he got paid for listening to his own songs.

He had seen Marty twice in the intervening 39 years, once with Sandy at a premier and once with the label’s legal team at a deposition — they didn’t speak on either occasion. Marty’s betrayal, for the most part, became just a vaguely annoying memory.

Until, of course, Cold Rayne’s iconic drummer was diagnosed with Stage III liver cancer. Several months before Sandy’s call, Rick’s wife noticed him following the story on TMZ.

“You think you should try to contact him?”

“Why? Look, I wouldn’t wish this on anybody, but the nearly late-great Martin J. Tambor isn’t exactly on my BFF list.”

“What’s the ‘J’ stand for?”

“I don’t know, Helen. Jackass?”

“All I know is that you guys had three unforgettable years and produced music they’ll be listening to a hundred years from now.

“You may not owe him this after the way he shafted you. But it seems stingy not to let him know how important he was to you. You know the story about Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott?”

“No, but I think I’m about to hear it.”

“You know me so well, Counselor. Sometime in the early ’50s and Woody, Jack, and maybe Brew Moore, I don’t remember, were playing joints out west. Now Woody had been like a big brother to Jack. So there they were on this tour, sharing a room to save money. One morning, Jack woke up to find that Woody had cleared out, clothes, guitar, last few cigarettes — everything. There was a note on Woody’s bed addressed to Jack. It said, ‘Dear Jack: Screw you. Love, Woody.’ Later, he said it was the best thing Woody could have done for him.”

“And how was that?”

Helen leaned over and kissed him. “Put that big brain to work, my love. Let me know when you’ve figured it out.”

“James.”

“Huh?”

“Marty’s middle name. The J is for James.”

The limo from the airport dropped Rick in front of Marty’s mansion in Riverside. Sandy opened the door before he had a chance to knock.

“He’s asleep and I didn’t want the sound to bother him,” she said, “so I was watching for you. How are you? How was your flight?”

“The flight took nearly 40 years, but the turbulence was manageable.”

Tall and still striking, Sandy was aging the way he had known she would, wearing her 61 years with a fluid grace that was at once natural and practiced. As she led him back to the kitchen and poured each of them a glass of sweet tea, he noticed the slight slump in the way she held her shoulders and realized she must be exhausted.

“So how are things with you, Rick? How’s Helen? Is she playing out anywhere?”

“She’s doing great. She’ll be flattered that you remembered her. Yeah, she still plays hotel lounges and gets a few gigs in Manhattan. Keeps her out of trouble.”

“You ever sit in?”

“Me? Nah. I sold off my last kit when we moved to Jersey. Haven’t picked up a pair of sticks in forever.”

“Too bad. You were really good.”

“Yeah, well. We’ve got a good thing going. Keeping each other sane, occasionally driving each other crazy. You know how it goes.”

“Yes. I remember when things were like that with Marty and me.” She swirled the ice in her glass. “I’m really happy for you.”

“Yeah, me too. So what’s the latest with Marty?”

Her eyes were steady, but she swallowed before she spoke. “Every day, he’s weaker. He stays doped up most of the time, so it’s not much different than it was near the end of our marriage — doped up against the pain. Of course, that was both of us.”

“What’s going to happen when he — uh — when this is…”

“Financially, I’ll be fine. Just like he did for you with the songs, he protected me in the settlement. That’s part of why I’m looking after him now.”

“Protected me?” Rick struggled to keep his voice even. “Listen, I don’t care about the Cold Rayne thing. I don’t care that I missed my shot. I don’t even care about what happened with you and me. But those songs were mine. Am I supposed to be grateful for getting paid what I was owed? Protected me? No way.”

“It’s not that simple. You were a kid back then. It would’ve been easy for Marty to claim you had nothing to do with those songs and you wouldn’t have had the money to fight back. It would’ve cost you everything the rights were worth and you would’ve lost anyway. Marty did some shitty things, but not in this case. You never realized that?”

Rick wouldn’t get a chance to mull that over until he was on the plane back to New Jersey. A soft chime interrupted them, followed by a sound that would have been a scream if it had had any strength behind it.

“Showtime,” Sandy said, motioning Rick to follow her into the ornate living room. An empty hospital bed was pushed up against one wall.

“He can’t use the bed anymore,” Sandy whispered. “Falling out of it was too risky.”

Instead, Marty was propped up on cushions on the floor. A thin mattress and blanket lay next to him. Even with his midsection hugely distended, he looked as if he couldn’t weigh more than 80 pounds. As Rick approached, Marty put his hands on the floor to push himself to a full sitting position, but grimaced, groaned, and gave up the effort.

“You look like warmed over shit, man,” Rick said.

Marty managed a grin. “It’s a good thing you didn’t decide to go into medicine. Your bedside manner really blows.”

Sandy said, “It’s not quite time to change your patch, but I can give you some oxy right away if things are rough.”

“No! That stuff makes me fuzzy. I want to be clearheaded when I talk to this guy.”

“Your call. It’s right here if you change your mind. I’ll leave you two to relive all those painful memories. I’m going to lie down for a while.”

She gave Rick a quick hug. “It really is good to see you again. When do you head back?”

“Tomorrow morning. Got a lunch meeting I can’t duck.”

“Well, have a safe flight. I’ll get in touch with you when I need to.”

“What she means,” Marty said, “is when I kick. Bet you hear it online first.”

Sandy waggled her fingers goodbye over her shoulder as she walked out of the room.

Rick turned back to Marty. “I’m sorry to see this happening to you.”

“Hell, I’m lucky to have made it to 60. Could’ve been dead years ago. Should’ve, maybe.”

“So, what’s the worst part?”

“Having no time left and still too much time to think. See, I can still come up with an OK hook. Bet you could clean it up and write a hit. You want it?”

“Thanks, I’ll pass. Too much time to think — yeah, I get that. But what is it? Now that you’re dying, you want to square things up with me? Make it OK that you screwed me over? I don’t see that happening.”

Marty’s body tensed as a wave of pain hit him. As it eased, he shook his head.

“No, I’m not looking for forgiveness. I knew what I was doing. I took my last, best shot. I figured you’d find a new band, get back on your feet. Instead, you just left it all on the table and walked away.”

“Your ‘last, best shot?’ You were 23. Hardly the end of the road.”

“Yeah? Let me break it down for you. Janis Joplin. Gary Thain. Jimi Hendrix. Alan Wilson. Pigpen McKernan. Brian Jones. Get the picture? I had to make my move before I ended up dead like those guys. You were so young and so clean, I knew you’d be around for a while. Me, not so much.”

Another current of pain surged through him. “I need to get through with this, but I’m really hurting. Hand me that bottle of oxy, will you?

Rick opened the bottle and passed it to him.

Marty shook out five pills into his skeletal hand. “One of the great things about dying. You can get high whenever you feel like it. Screw the twelve steps.” He chewed a couple of them and downed the rest without water.

“Let’s see. Where was I? The money and the life always came second to the music for you. You must have missed it. Can you look me in these old yellow eyes and tell me you’re as happy as you were when you were playing? Nah, don’t answer that.

“Was it my fault? I’m guilty of setting you back, but deciding to bag it all? That’s all on you, old son.”

He leaned his head back and closed his eyes for several minutes while the pills took effect. Rick was wondering if he should leave when Marty opened his eyes. It took another moment for him to focus.

“See that snare over by the bookshelves? Bought that with my first big check. Go ahead, take a look.”

Rick walked over to one of the most beautiful drums he had ever seen, perfectly machined with a deep luster and gold fittings.

Marty’s voice was fainter, but still lucid. “That is a 1927 Ludwig Black Beauty. It’s my favorite. I kept it in great shape.”

“It must be valuable.”

“Not really. Maybe three grand – maybe more ‘cause it was mine. But I’m not selling it. I’m giving it to you, along with my best kit. Call it my last decent act.”

“That’s very generous, but why me? I don’t play anymore.”

“Oh yeah, that’s the other thing. A dying man’s directive. It’s too late for you to score big, but it’s never too late for you to get happy. Start playing again. For real.”

“That’s a hell of an order, coming from you. I suppose you want me to give up my career and ‘follow my bliss.’ Lay in a supply of incense and Peter Max posters?”

Marty was barely audible. “No. You keep working at the lawyer stuff. I’m just telling you take the drums, get a band, do what you were meant to do. Somehow, some way. And don’t even think about weaseling out of it, ‘cause I’ll haunt the shit out of you after I die. Might do it anyway, just for laughs.”

And as the drug took full effect and his former friend’s head sank to his chest in a stupor, Rick heard himself saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna have to do that.”

Like many retirees, Fred Wish finds his days busier than ever, with woodworking, consulting, music, poker, and managing property occupying much of his time. Oh yeah, and writing. Fred’s professional career revolved around writing, but most often at someone else’s command. Now that he has the luxury of choosing his own writing projects, he enjoys working solo or co-authoring articles with his wife, Loretta. Fred is proud to be a member of the Princeton Writer’s Room.

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