Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
4674 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

The Moment Before the Downbeat

Tony Van Witsen

Maybe it started the day you were painting your nails, singing to yourself, and your dad lumbered by, muttering, “Oh do we have a Barbra Streisand in this house?” and you caught him looking at you, quizzical and bemused, as if this observation sealed your fate. You were fifteen at the time and you snickered to yourself, partly because your father’s video collection of old Streisand specials was a family joke, and partly because you knew you weren’t doing Barbra, you were doing Norah Jones. Or maybe it started the day you stood up in church choir rehearsals and spontaneously belted out a credible white knockoff of Sarah Vaughan just because you felt like it, leaving the other kids grinning like idiots and the choirmaster wondering out loud whether to praise you or blame you for disrupting practice. Eight years of diminished expectations later, you can no longer recall how it started; you only know if you’re a girl from Huntington, Indiana with a taste for jazz vocalizing, you sometimes wonder why you even bothered.

Your mother, a school secretary, thinks you should attend DePauw and get your Bachelor of Music Education with Choral Emphasis so you’ll have something to fall back on, but Mr. Overton, who runs the music department at Huntington North High School, says, “Get out of this place, Katie, before the Indiana cocoon closes in on you.” Then he calls the head of music education for the State Department of Education in Indianapolis, who calls a contact at the Berklee School of Music to get you a scholarship. You accept, over your parents’ misgivings and establish some sort of fame among the Berklee hipsters and potheads by being the only pop music student they’ve ever met who doesn’t sleep with her dates and never touches drugs. You graduate with honors in Vocal Performance then move to Chicago where you go to work at a P.R. agency, share a remodeled apartment in Wrigleyville with three other girls, and dawdle away the evenings with TV, not even bothering with music. For eight months this life seems normal and right, then one day it doesn’t. The week you accept an invitation to a musician’s party is also the week you go for and flunk your first audition.

You knock on the door of the house on the north side, hearing the party’s din, sensing the narcissism, smelling the pot. Entering, you stare at women as young as yourself who look aggressive and probably sleep around, which you know you’ll never do, then strike up a conversation with Adam, the boy you’ll eventually move in with. You like the way he spills half a drink on you and doesn’t apologize, doesn’t brag about famous performers he knows (or has met, anyway), and seems to know a lot about singers—for a drummer, anyway. Someone offers you a joint. You shake your head and tell Adam you drifted into jazz for moral reasons.

He looks at you. “Isn’t that a bit—unusual?”

You want to tell him how you feel about rap, rock, violence, the whole drug scene, that you not only don’t want to do that stuff, you don’t want to sing about it; there has to be a better use for your talents. Then something about the intensity and strangeness of your conviction at this loose, easy party frightens you and you can’t continue. You decide not to reminisce about sneaking back into the darkened practice room after choral rehearsals in high school to catch the kids who stayed behind making out, but the real reason you don’t is your paralyzing fear Adam will figure out what a dumb Hoosier hick you really are.

Later that evening you meet Calvin Ebenhoch. A singer from the midwest like yourself, in his early 30s, with a carefully brushed prematurely graying crewcut, he tells you he wants to make music that catches the early morning sunlight on his grandfather’s snow-covered barn in Michigan, which you think is weird, wants to record an album in the Victorian wreck of a house where he grew up, which confuses you. You know all about growing up in a wreck of a house, only it wasn’t Victorian, just an architectural mongrel with a clapboard front and a concrete block den stuck onto the rear like a carbuncle. You look into his pinched, ascetic face with its rimless glasses, but there isn’t the faintest sign he’s putting you on, only seriousness. After a while you decide he isn’t trying to pick you up or impress you, and only seems odd because he can’t help saying what he thinks.

You drift back to Adam, whose knowing talk about the music business makes you want to tell your girlfriends about this terrific guy you’ve met who could teach you so much you don’t know yet, but are sure you need to. This makes you feel outrageously sexy. The two of you end the evening lying on the floor, kissing and groping each other in the cramped space behind the living room couch with its dust balls and candy wrappers. When he reaches under your blouse to unhook your bra, you instinctively roll on your back, crushing his hand. He lets out a yell and bolts upright. “No,” you say automatically. “Not yet. No, that’s all.”

“You said you’re from Huntington, right?” he says, opening and closing his bruised hand. “Where is that, exactly?”

You’re about to tell him it’s Dan Quayle’s home town but then you realize he’s probably never heard of Dan Quayle. Twisting your head around, you notice Calvin gazing at the botched remains of your makeout scene, and while you expect him to react somehow, surprised, jealous or only horny, he doesn’t. For a long time afterward you’ll remember that he turns around and begins contentedly noodling away at the host’s piano.

To jumpstart your career, you take an unpaid evening job waitressing at a local club, Blue Haze. The club is owned by a famous criminal defense lawyer who runs it so he can have a place to hang out after hours and introduce his friends to the musicians he knows. Because he’s wealthy and incorrigibly in love with jazz, he pays the musicians generously and ignores the fact that this makes enemies of other club owners. Waitresses make only tips. Twice a week you tie on your apron, worrying about your hateful inability to stop smiling. Smile at the patrons as you take their orders, smile at the kitchen staff. Smile at Ronnie, the manager. None of the big singers of the past ever smiled. Diana Krall never smiles either and look how well she’s done for herself. The lying insincerity of your automatic smile doesn’t bother you as much as the different kinds of insincerity and the trickiness of keeping them straight.

You lunch with Calvin every few weeks, craving his attention, baffled by his ideas. Calvin teaches AP physics at a private school, loves his students for their willingness to try anything, and complains about their mothers, whom he calls “Trixies.” At one lunch he says, “Musicalize every possible moment. Try singing out your order to the waiter.” Another time he says, “Be more quantum in your singing, less Newtonian. Try singing in two places at once.” Hearing this remark, Adam says, “Why does he always have to be the hippest guy in the room? Why can’t he just make music?”

You flunk more auditions, then do stupid things like vomiting up your Mexican lunch in the gutter on the way home or kicking the couch and screaming at Adam. “Didn’t I specifically—specifically—tell you to put my name in as Kathryn Goff? Don’t interrupt. Names count for singers.”

At two different lunches Calvin tells you, “Be more Indiana when you sing, Katie, not less.” He says this with such conviction that you suspect it’s meant as a compliment, though you don’t know why. Being from Indiana is just there, like the face you see in the mirror: long jaw, eyes too small, good skin, good teeth, lips too thin to show lipstick properly. You can’t follow Calvin’s thinking. Why can’t you just get up onstage in a crowded club and reduce everyone to jelly with one perfect rendition of “Summertime?”

You admire Adam’s extremely professional attitude toward his work. “I’ll take any gig with a paycheck,” he says, even when he makes cracks about playing in a suburban dinner theater production of Hair. After a week of the dinner theater job, he’s fired. You later hear reports that the other players didn’t like his attitude, something you suspect is true after he clomps around the apartment whistling “The Age of Aquarius” with such pointed sarcasm that you want to run outside just to breathe a lungful of fresh air.

Late one night you and Adam are walking through the Loop when you stumble across another drummer and a bassist you know. The four of you link arms and walk around and around under the rumbling el trains, singing at the top of your lungs, grinning as your brash voices echo off silent skyscrapers with your own cooey soprano the only one on key. At 6 am, you and Adam stagger home in a euphoric haze, then sleep till noon. You wake feeling as deliriously oversexed as the night you met and make a lunge for his sleeping body. The rest of the day is spent in giggly nonstop lovemaking, pausing only long enough to slurp up a pot of spaghetti, kissing oily garlicky kisses while you stand naked in front of the stove.

You can’t talk about any of this to your family in your weekly calls to Huntington. Your worrying mother wouldn’t understand, nor would your father, recovering from a mild heart attack after demolishing the rusting swing set in the backyard.

One day at lunch, Calvin spreads out a sheaf of musty-smelling score sheets which he tells you he recovered from an old warehouse in New Jersey. He wants to make an album from them: early versions of famous songs. Humming one score, you recognize it as a first draft of “All The Things You Are.”

“Don’t hum,” says Calvin. “Sing it.”

You stop humming.

“Excuse me for interrupting,” says the fiftyish, chicly-dressed woman at the next table. “Have I heard of you two? Do you do something special?”

“We’re archaeologists,” says Calvin.

“How exciting!” says the woman. “I took an archaeology course in college. Where’s your dig?”

“New Jersey,” says Calvin.

“Check, please,” the woman calls to the waiter.

At 12:30 one morning, at Blue Haze, you slump against the kitchen entrance, absently scooping up guacamole from a dirty dish with your finger. Dead tired, you’re not prepared for the hand on your shoulder or Ronnie’s voice with its southside twang. Some time has opened up. Want to try a number? You start to untie your apron, as you stumble toward the stage, change your mind and leave it on. You pluck the mike from its stand, squinting through the spotlights into the cavernous darkness as the announcer’s voice roars out your name from refrigerator-size speakers. From the stage, the room looks too big, all the clubby intimacy gone. You turn to the band behind you, ready to count out the beat. You wait, savoring the silence. Things are so focused now, so concentrated, as though God were in the moment with you. How long can you let that moment continue? How long?

“One!” you cry out, snapping your fingers. “One! Two! Three! Four!”

Next day, in your office, you sneak peeks at the Tribune where Neil Tesser gave you a six-line writeup you can’t understand. What does he mean by your “eloquent plainness?” That has to be some kind of putdown.

“What’s with Tesser?” you ask Adam that evening. “Does he think I’m an amateur?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did he have to mention the apron?”

“What counts,” says Adam, “is that he got your name right.”

One day at work you notice you’re the only girl who’s not from Lincoln Park or Lakeview, doesn’t streak her hair, and doesn’t live at Starbuck’s. You look at the other girls and realize they’re the ones Calvin calls Trixies.

You discover you have a knack for writing news releases after Mr. Luker, your boss, asks you to do a few on days when work is backed up. They’re a snap, way easier than high school English themes. You just bury your ego and get on with the job at hand.

When you arrive at Blue Haze Thursday evening, it’s padlocked. A few baffled calls later, you reach a fellow waitress. “They went out of business Monday,” says Ruthie’s matter-of-fact voice. “I guess nobody bothered to tell you. It was kind of confusing for a couple of days.”

“Oh, lordy! Why?”

“Who knows? It was never a real business, it was a tax dodge. Forget it. Move on.”

Forget it, nothing. You’ve got to make the owner suffer for the sheer humiliation, the foolishness, you’re feeling.

“You’re lucky,” says Adam when he gets the news. “You were only working for tips. The musicians are probably out a week’s pay at least.”

You force a laugh. “At least I have a day job.”

“There, you see?” says Adam. “Simply admitting the unimportance of it is half the game.”

“Just what do you mean by that?”

“I’m agreeing with you. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Nothing. Never mind. Forget I said anything.”

You start to cry. “Damn you, damn you, damn you. Can’t you let me have five minutes to feel lousy?”

Adam looks on as the tears stream down your face. In about two minutes, the tears stop. “Come here,” Adam says. “Let me give you a hug.”

“Not yet,” you tell him.

After a local label releases Calvin’s second album to much comment and some national airplay, you start begging off from the lunches with shoddy excuses. You feel guilty, but not guilty enough to go back to lunching with him.

Your father has a second heart attack. You cancel a wedding gig and take four unauthorized days off from work to drive to Huntington and be at his bedside in the cardio ICU, sleeping in your old bedroom where your parents have left everything intact, right down to the pink shag rug, the walnut paneling, and the music posters. In the hospital lobby your mother tells you the middle school has an opening for a choral teacher. It hasn’t been advertised yet, she says, but can be yours for asking. This would ease your poor father’s heart, she implies. You tell her Adam is now working three days a week in a percussion store—not for the money, you explain, but for the music-business contacts. You tell her you’ve joined a group of volunteers who put on musical puppet shows for kids in hospitals. You don’t tell her the plush lion puppet with big moony eyes became a hit when you stopped making it roar and began riffing scat lyrics instead: “Bompa-doo-bay. Ba-dooya-doo-ba-doo-bay.” This made the kids shriek with laughter but when the show was over and the puppets packed away, you felt like a sellout. You share this news later with your sister, whose tranquil, trouble-free marriage is proof good things do happen occasionally to people who deserve them.

When you return to work you discover Mr. Luker has reassigned your medical imaging account to one of the Trixies. The temperature around the office seems to have dropped ten degrees. You wonder how long you have to answer phones and run the Xerox before you’re back in the boss’s good graces. You try to shake the feeling off because you know exactly what Adam would say if he caught you acting like your day job mattered.

Three times over the summer you run into Eve Risher, a girl singer you know slightly and dislike. 45-ish, voluptuous, and still movie-star beautiful, Eve survives by vocal coaching and selling her CDs, which she delivers to local music stores from the back of her Jetta. Everyone knows Eve’s latest album, produced by a cooperative of local musicians, will be a hit. No one believes this more than her veteran saxophonist, Armand de Blasi. Armand subbed for Paul Desmond on one cut of a Brubeck album a long time ago and frequently teases you by saying, “You’re lucky you weren’t around in the sixties, Katie. Too many distractions. It’s better today. Musicians can focus on music.” When you next see Eve, at a party, she’s laughing, wriggling with pleasure as three men lob Sweet-N-Lo packets at her cleavage. You want to push her in the face.

Any day now, you expect a phone call telling you your father’s latest heart attack was fatal. When the call comes, it’s your sister telling you your mother has died of a pulmonary embolism. The funeral, which you attend without Adam, takes place on one of those blue and gold fall days that your father, a rabid Notre Dame fan, would call football weather, except he’s too distraught to notice. Everyone files slowly past the open casket in heavy, dark clothing: aunts and uncle who squeezed you as a kid, cousins who bored or annoyed you, neighbors from down the block. As the minister drones on and you can see the lonely helplessness in your father’s eyes, your pity for him is exactly balanced by your relief that he’ll be your angelic sister’s burden now, not yours.

Armand quits Eve’s group telling everyone he’s tired of waiting for her breakthrough album. Hearing this, Adam wonders out loud if he’s going back to the Brubeck quartet. A month later, on your lunch hour, you see Armand playing a free concert at Millennium Park. He looks thinner, healthier. Then you notice Eve is the featured vocalist. You suspect Eve is being charitable to Armand by taking him back but later he grins and tells you, “I can work with Eve now that she no longer signs my paychecks.”

One afternoon you stick your head out the open living room window and run through “Stardust,” “As Time Goes by,” and “Dancing In The Dark,” in quick succession while Adam watches with lazy detachment from the couch. On the street, two garbage collectors look up from emptying their cans into the truck to wave and cheer. “Thanks,” you shout. “Would you mind holding your applause till the last number’s over?”

“That’s enough,” says Adam.

“‘Fly me to the moon—’”

“You want the whole neighborhood to hear you?” says Adam. One of the garbage collectors puts down his can, grins, and starts to air-dance with an invisible partner.

Adam leaps from the couch. In two steps he’s at the window, banging it shut with one hand, grabbing your waist with the other. Turning, you tug almost free of him, reopen the window and stick your head out, but Adam yanks you inside again. “Get away from me!” you shout. “If I wanna sing, I wanna sing.” You’re still singing when he frog-marches you to the easy chair where you both collapse in a sprawl of arms and legs. You twist part way around, landing a kick on his right shin and a fist to his ribs before he clamps his hand over your mouth.

“Sweetie, what’s bothering you?” says Adam.

You think if you tell him that that infernal puppet show makes you feel hokey, like some corny kindergarten teacher, he’ll lecture you on the importance of professionalism. You know what else you could blurt out: This isn’t working, Adam. I need to get away, to breathe. All we ever talk about is music and our careers. But it plays like soap opera in your mind and you hate soap opera. Wordlessly, you sit for a while, enclosed in his arms. Outside, children shout and the garbage truck’s roar gradually fades into the stillness of a Saturday afternoon.

“Well?” you say, after Adam finally releases his grip. “Is that it?” He smiles as he pushes you gently off him. You kiss him once and go off to use the bathroom.

You suspect Calvin is playing one of his ironic little jokes when his new manager, Brody, asks you to open for him at the premiere party of Calvin’s new album, Levitation. You haven’t forgotten the scene in the restaurant with the old sheet music, when he sliced that woman’s head off so cleanly she never felt the blade. You stall for time, trying to come up with a really good excuse, one he’ll believe. Finally you send Brody your worst audition tape. You don’t want to miss the party, though, so you wangle an invitation through one of the publicists at work.

You show up before Adam, and flash your invitation at the door of the sleek new River North Performance Space, surrounded by mobs. Joining the crowd on the dance floor, you sway, rock your hips, gulp an overflowing cosmopolitan to keep it from spilling, whirl past a couple of local TV personalities, then past a pianist shouting something you can’t hear. You close your eyes, opening them just as Mr. Luker boogaloos toward you in tweed jacket and crisply pressed faded jeans. “Katie! That press packet you did? The O’Hare Airport thing? Wonderful! Bang-on. The client—” A burst of noise, bodies still crowding the floor. “I want you to be a full-time publicist from now on,” he shouts, dancing past you.

New bodies edge through the doors like extras in some biblical epic, more Calvin fans than you knew existed, plus a few street-crazies lending an unstable throb to the scene. Sweaty from dancing, you touch the cold wetness of the cosmo glass to your neck as Adam swims out of the mob looking tired. “God, what a nuthouse. I hope you’re having a good time.” A roar goes up as the dance music dies and a follow spot illuminates Calvin on the stage. Standing slat-thin in his signature black, he raises his arms for quiet. You strain to comprehend as he begins to clap his hands in an intricately patterned interplay with the drums and bass. Music? Does he call this music? It’s the most boring thing you’ve ever heard; Dan Quayle would have stalked out in a huff, and for once you would have agreed.

Mr. Luker arrives at the ice bar, picking up his speech where he’d left off. “The hardest thing in this business is to find good talent, but I knew you had a head for P-R the minute I saw you.” You both glance at the stage, where Calvin acknowledges a round of applause and drops his head in a bow. Mr. Luker accepts a cosmo from one of three lissome blondes in white bartender jackets who pour cranberry juice with professional precision, then gushes on, face gleaming like a lottery winner. Opportunities. Growth curves. “Look at me drinking this girly-drink,” he says, grinning. Cosmopolitans are everywhere. Their liquid pinkness punctuates the vast room like little rubies.

“Talent,” you say. “That’s the key to everything.” You can’t stand your boss at that moment, his optimism, the upbeat promise in his voice. Fighting to get away, you begin to push through the bodies. You hear a yell, “Katie!” You realize it’s Calvin. But you wonder if your time in the limelight lies in the future or the past, a chance you’ve blown before you could attempt it. Nothing about the whole scene, from the brutally modern glass and steel interior to the spotlight’s glare seems real. What’s real is Adam’s hand clasping yours as you stumble and bump past the whispering pointing crowd. Another moment and you’ll be at the exit, no Calvin, no Luker, no blondes, nothing more to flee from. The doors loom up, then with a crash, you and Adam push through them into the street where it’s still only eight in the evening.

“What a nuthouse,” Adam says again while you’re riding home. “Who let those street people in? Was that a stunt?”

Just then you decide to tell him about the promotion and watch his resentment and anger come tumbling out.

“A P-R gal? You want to be a flack? And give up music?”

“I’m not giving up music. So don’t even suggest—”

“What do you think’s gonna happen if you become a little P-R gal? Didn’t we agree that job was only for the money?”

You can’t see what’s wrong with being a good P-R gal. Steady paycheck, health insurance—is that so bad?

“Flack,” comes Adam’s warbly singsong, grinning drunkenly under the harsh bus lights. “Flack, flack, flack, flack, flack, flack, flack, flack.”

“Out here,” you yell, pulling the stop cord. Outside, it’s the kind of brutally cold winter night Chicagoans have to suffer through, but you can feel one of Adam’s rants about artistic integrity coming on and you’d rather walk the last six blocks through freezing wind than expose the bus passengers to that.

In the morning, fresh from a bath and breakfast, you decide the best way to reject the promotion is by being reasonable but firm. The job is just a job; best let it remain so and avoid distractions. At your desk, you check voicemail for word of possible gigs while you rehearse your speech: “You’re very generous, Mr. Luker. However my boyfriend and I had a long talk last night—” And he’ll understand; how could he not understand, so young and funny, always stopping by the assistant’s pool to tell the latest raunchy joke?

Here’s what he actually says: “In that case, you should seriously consider whether you’ll be happy here in the long run. We want go-getters in this office, not time-servers. You know what a go-getter is, don’t you, Katie?”

“Mr. Luker, are you— Am I being—”

“Not yet. Let’s say you have till lunch to decide. Or would you rather cut to the chase and tell me now?”

The Trixies titter and trade glances, knowing this performance is partly for them. “You know she’s a singer too,” one calls out. A few giggles, then someone else yells, “Take it! Take the promotion!”

And at that moment, you know you could do anything. Stay. Throw the job in his face. Organize a news conference for some corporate motormouth if need be then grab the mike, breaking into song while the assembled press gasps and falls into a heap. You try to make time linger, like the moment before the downbeat, but can’t. Time doesn’t stretch, it races.

“A singer?” says Mr. Luker. “I didn’t know that. So, sing.”

Later you’ll have trouble recalling what happens next; you must have put one note in front of the other and gone ahead with it, but the scene lacks normal forward movement, like a runaway film that jumped its sprockets. The Trixies might have shrieked and clapped and you heard someone shout, “Yes! YES!!” As you slow the pace, dropping your words a fraction of a second behind the beat, then speeding up toward the end, you can hear the voice of your choral teacher whispering in your ear about the marked improvement in your phrasing and attack.

“Alright, that’s enough,” says Luker, looking at his watch. “My, my, my. We definitely don’t want to lose a combination of talents like yours. My guess is you’ll need an office and a secretary for whatever it is we’re going to ask you to do.” He stalks off. Only after you’ve moved into your new office, ordered business cards, and contemplated the 40th-floor view, does it occur to you that if you’d managed to reach Calvin before accepting the promotion, he could have given you some canny advice about how much money to hold out for. You gaze out the window at the boatless lake and the cloudless sky, nothing to mar the perfection of blue meeting blue, and think about what to tell Adam.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury