MELLY MOCKINGBIRD: Part Two

 
 
Summer in Texas was stupefyingly hot. Everybody kept telling her that Austin was better than Houston. At least Austin was dry, they said. Ash felt she could do with a bit of humidity. She knew what it was like to be the wisp of dried grass that catches fire under a magnifying glass. Her days were marked by stretches of unbearable travel between stations of air-conditioned sanctuary.

Melly sang standards at the Claw once a week, on Tuesdays. As Avery said, it was a start, but it kept on being a start and didn’t turn into anything else. Melly was not a hard worker. Her grasp of financial necessity—of any necessity, in fact—was tenuous, and she preferred hanging out with Avery, sunbathing at Barton Creek, and watching TV to anything as disciplined as getting a job. Ash herself had not really understood money until they ran out of it. With four children, a father with no pension plan and a mother who did part-time bookkeeping at an auto-parts company, her family had money problems, but she’d left those worries to her parents. Now, however, she was coming to know the panic of shortfall. She simply couldn’t make eight hundred dollars last a month, even after Avery moved in.

“What should I do?” she asked him in despair. He leafed through the bills on the table. “Well,” he said, “you don’t ever want to pay your electric or your gas on time, for one.”

“But the electricity is already two months overdue.”

“I don’t guess they turn it off until three months,” Avery said.

“Do you think I should get another job?” Ash slumped in her chair. She knew it was the pot, the cigarettes, the six or seven nights of clubgoing a week, and then they had to eat—barbecue and burgers and fried okra, fajitas and migas and Thundercloud subs, and God only knew how much beer. He patted her on the shoulder. “I think you should start thinking about publicity,” he said.

Avery had gotten Melly the gig at the Claw, and he was helping her work up a little repertoire, too. Melly had perfect pitch and a sort of aural photographic memory. She could read music, although she never bothered. Once, trying to save time, Avery gave her the lead sheet for “Just One of Those Things,” but she just handed it back to him. Practice bored her, and it was only Avery’s patient cajolery that kept her at the piano.

He said, and Dirk did too, that she had a gift. “That time at Harold’s, my jaw just about hit the floor,” Avery told her. “Nobody in this town can stand up to you.”

“What about Caroline?”

His fair skin blossomed pink, even in the runnels behind his ears (which Ash could see from the back seat). “Well, Caro has a different, she’s more of—”

“I know, nobody’s better than Caro,” said Melly, kissing him on the cheek. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem, and it took Ash many weeks to conclude there might be one, was that Caro no longer mattered at all.

“She has a killer instinct,” Dirk said. “I don’t know if it’s the phrasing, the timing, the tits or what, but she can really put that shit across. Now if she could just learn to show up on time, she’d be practically human.”

“As opposed to you,” Ash said. He had surprised her by working with Melly for almost two months. In the end he took Ash aside and said, “Your Sapphic honey over there could make you a shitload of cash. All you have to do is teach her to wash, dress, brush her hair, and start taking this job a little fucking seriously.” After that, Melly had done a single late-afternoon show at Harold’s, alone with Avery on piano, in a much smaller room. Dirk had arranged this show, because, he said, it would be bad for him if Melly suddenly vanished. “People will say I kicked her out, and I’ll look like a prick. And the success of Dirk Deadly depends on me not looking like a prick.” “You must be a pretty good actor,” Ash said sulkily, and he said, “Believe it.”

After the afternoon gig, Harold Fishstein gave Ash two twenty-dollar bills. “She’s not bad,” he said. “Get her singing something she’s really interested in, and then give me a call.” She wondered why everybody assumed she was in charge.

* * * * *

Avery explained the press kit. He’d been working as a musician since he was eighteen, and he wished someone had told him this stuff, he said. “How did you get started, then?” Ash asked.

“Just hung around all the time. Got to know people, talked to them about their music, helped them set up and break down and all. I’d go buy ‘em beer, bring it back to the club.” Before long a band called First Strike asked him to sit in, just out of curiosity. By the time he answered Caro’s ad for a fiddler he was gigging three or four nights a week.

“Melly would never work that hard.”

“No,” he agreed. They were drinking and smoking at a picnic table behind the Red Tulip on Lavaca. The Tulip usually played dance music, but Avery had heard that a Mexican corrido singer was appearing tonight. “That’s why you got to do it for her.”

In this year of miracles, Ash—who dreaded oral presentations, group introductions, and anything else that required her to enact a version of herself, who could not even play charades at a party—found it easy to go into clubs and talk up her girlfriend. Avery gave her the names of all the bookers in town. For clippings, she had two sentences that had appeared in the Record some months apart—“Deadly’s spit-polished shtick was enlivened by an unknown vocalist” and “Tuesdays at the Claw, Melinda Fortenay puts a new spin on some old favorites”—plus a review from the Daily Texan. She had a song list and a little bio she’d written herself.

“Avery Jones is in on this?”

“He’s her accompanist.”

“I’ll never forget the day he came in here with a sousaphone. I didn’t know those fuckers even existed.”

“He got it at a yard sale,” Ash said.

“What’s he trying to do, start a marching band?”

“I think he just liked the looks of it.” Their house was crowded with Avery’s adopted instruments, including two ukeleles and a harp.

“I don’t have anything till October,” said the booker. “Whyn’t you leave me your demo, and—”

“We don’t have a demo.”

“Don’t have one?”

“No.”

He hesitated, turning over her materials. “Tell you whut. Whyn’t you bring your friend by sometime before the kids get back. Say two, three in the afternoon, I’m usually here.” He held the photograph out to her. “You her manager?”

“Girlfriend.”

That stopped him from releasing the picture, and he looked at it again. “Pretty girl like that?”

“Believe it,” Ash said. She might have thought twice in a restaurant or a shop. But she felt, and always would feel, safe in a dingy daylit nightclub, its atmosphere rancid with beer and piss and its hungover manager lounging on a milk crate, shielding his eyes from the sun.

Avery was teaching Melly to banter. She wasn’t very good at first, but she got the hang of it after a while. Melly wasn’t especially fond of performing—she seemed neutral about it, as if it were just a job, or what a job would be to anyone else. But there was no doubt that she enjoyed her effect on people.

“I hope y’all haven’t come out here tonight looking for real music.”

She didn’t look at anyone, just walked back and forth on the platform. Ash had finally persuaded her to dress up for her gigs. Tonight she had on a leather skirt from Goodwill and her ruffled blouse, but she would insist on Reeboks.
“Because you can go next door to Anchovies and see Timbuk3 if that’s what you want.”

“‘Mack the Knife,’ Melly,” someone shouted.

“I’m so tired of that song.”

Avery spoke to her. She continued, “It’s such a boring song, oh the shark has, pretty teeth dear—so boring. I don’t know why y’all are so bloodthirsty anyway. Texans.”

The audience, still small and largely male, thrilled to the suggestion of an insult. “I don’t want to sing any Patsy Cline, either.” She pronounced it “Cla-ahn,” frowning at them. Then, unexpectedly, to no accompaniment, she crooned out:

“Love . . . Brings such misery and pain . . .”

Avery recovered and joined in with the melody. In the back of the room, Ash got chills.

“Hi, thanks for coming, do you want to sign up? Hi, thanks for coming.” She offered the clipboard to a dyke in a Western shirt. “Do you want to sign up?”

“What are you doing?” said Melly, looking over her shoulder.

“Your stuff is cool, man,” said the girl. Melly ignored her. “Thank you,” Ash said. “Thanks for coming. Baby, you should say thank you.”

“Great show, Melly,” said a tall, craggy man wearing hoops in both ears.

“Thanks so much. Would you like to be on the mailing list?” Ash said. She passed him the clipboard. Thoughtfully, he took a fountain pen from his pocket. “Why do we need a mailing list?” Melly said. “Everyone knows I’m here on Tuesdays.”

“We have to grow your following.”

Melly looked at the man who was now inscribing his name on the sign-up sheet. “I don’t want it to grow,” she said.

“More following, more money,” said Ash. She didn’t add that Melly’s popularity was in no danger of increasing as long as she kept breaking appointments and refusing to cut a demo tape.

“May I intrude?” said the craggy man. He handed the clipboard to Ash. “It would be foolish not to get the word out, Melly. I believe you could go places.”

She examined him again. “I like it here.”

“Roderick West.” He shook hands with her and with Ash. He was perhaps forty, though it was hard to tell his age from his long hair and long, weatherworn face. “A pleasure to meet you. Melly, I have to tell you how much I admire your work.”

At the Dewdrop he sat in a corner of their booth, flattering her. He didn’t smile much. His eyes were hooded and his eyebrows gray. Ash couldn’t eat. She went out to the parking lot and smoked a cigarette in the close, iron-colored night.

* * * * *

Avery was the only one actually bringing money into the household. He had joined a wedding band that played all over central Texas—New Braunfels, San Antonio, Waco, Lampasas, even Waxahachie, which was almost three hours away—and a local outfit that played quinceañeras on the Eastside, and he did some studio work whenever he could fit it in. Apart from the shows with Melly, he didn’t play in clubs anymore. He didn’t have the time.

With Melly, as with all his jobs, he was tireless. He made her practice every day and patiently taught her new songs and arrangements. Starting in September, in addition to singing for the same clutch of fans once a week at the Claw, Melly held alternate Sundays at the Student Union. Ash had worked hard on that one. It probably would have been easier to sell her own body on the steps of the Capitol than it had been to get a call back from the Student Activities Committee. Nevertheless, she knew that the person most responsible for Melly’s success, lukewarm and limited as it might be, was Avery.

“Whyn’t you try that again . . . hold on.”

“First you love me, then you snub me—”

“Wait, okay.”

“What can I do, I’m so in love with you—”

He hummed the bridge as he felt it out on his Strat. Melly sang over him, clashing:

“I guess I’ll never see the light. I get the blues ’bout every night, oh . . .”

Avery stopped. On his freckled face was a look that Ash, lying on the couch with the Austin American-Statesman, recognized from their nights on Sixth Street. He got this look when he came across something that amazed him—a truck, a girl, but most often a performance, something that roused his excitement and fired his optimism about the future. It was one of the things Ash loved about Avery, his ability to be amazed.

“Can you sing the blues?”