The rest of Sunday and all of Monday flew by in a blur. All I could think about was the pit in my stomach and the ball of desire in my throat for that woman. School was useless. I managed to avoid both Wool and Bill. I saw Stilton once in the hall but ducked into a classroom before he saw me. I kept returning to the encounter, wondering why I didn’t ask for her name, why I didn’t ask for more information. She just sat there and I just stood there, quivering. I woke up Tuesday with what felt like a beetle in my stomach trying to gnaw its way out. Eating was out of the question. I half wanted practice to get here as quickly as possible, half wanted to run off into the woods and return in about a week. After school, I headed home to pick up equipment. I was loading it up in my car when Stilton drove up.
“Still on for practice?”
“I’ll follow you over.”
I backed the car out of the driveway. I had wanted to be the first one there. Now I had Stilton in tow and for all I knew, the woman was already knocking on Wool’s front door. I’d be like the lion tamer walking into the cage after someone had let all the lions in, helpless and out of control. Though frankly, I felt like I had such precious little control at this point anyway. Seemed like Fate was just unwinding before me like a blood red carpet rolled out towards an execution. We got to Wool’s house with only Bill’s old Nova there, no Chevy in the driveway. That did little to quiet my churning insides, for all I know she could have floated over from the next county. My grip on reality was fading fast. I grabbed my stuff and headed towards the door. Stilton was struggling with his guitar and amplifier. Wool opened the front door.
“Thought maybe you would have found a way to get rid of him since you’ve been ignoring us for the last two days,” he said.
“Well, I have a plan but I’m not sure it’s going to work.”
“What is it?”
“Probably best if I keep that to myself.”
“Fine. I hope it works. That guy makes me nervous.”
I took my stuff down into the basement. Stilton followed me, still struggling with the equipment. Bill was sitting behind the trap set looking at last year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. He didn’t look up as we came down the stairs. I started setting up the mike and putting my horn together. I hadn’t played it since Sunday at the rest stop. It looked practically foreign to me. I thought of her sitting up at her house somewhere behind the pines listening to me play. My hands got a little clammy. This was going to be an interesting afternoon.
“Where should I set up?” Stilton asked. Neither Wool or Bill offered any information.
“Probably over there on the right side. You can plug in behind that bookcase.’
The doorbell rang and stopped my heart. When it started back up, I thought I was dying.
“I’ll get it,” I said avoiding eye contact with Wool.
I ran up the stairs. The other three would have to be suspicious at this point. Why would I answer the door at Wool’s house? None of that mattered. I opened the door and again, my feet turned to concrete. She was wearing tennis shoes, blue jeans and a simple LSU sweatshirt. To me, it looked like she was wearing an evening gown. Her hair was pulled back in a tight pony tail. Her lips were the color of mahogany and I would swear her eyes were the size of granite colored saucers.
“Can I come in?”
“Oh yeah, sure, sorry. We were just setting up.”
Somehow, I managed to get my feet moving in the right direction and led the way back down the basement stairs. I opened the door to the basement and walked in. The other three guys looked up and I could tell I wasn’t going to have to worry about explaining her presence.
“Guys, this is…um…”
“Shelby,” I finished. “She’s going to be in the band. She can sing.”
“Actually, he doesn’t know if I can sing or not. I just told him I could and he said OK.” The woman had an uncanny way of making me feel uncomfortable. “He was out practicing at a rest stop on the Nacogdoches highway Sunday and I went to listen to him.“
The other three looked at me like I had two heads. There wasn’t any use explaining. No story could possibly make them understand.
“Look, let’s just finish getting set up and start practice. It’s getting late already,” I said. “Shelby, you can use my mike.“
We started off with “In A Sentimental Mood. The sound that came out of Shelby’s mouth caused the rest of her to melt away, as if the voice was a thing in itself, disengaged and unattached to the person producing it. I realized at that point that I was in love with her. Her singing picked the rest of us up and forced us to play in a different consciousness. The walls wept slightly at the sound of the band. We were suddenly better than good. I wasn’t sure what we were yet but we were definitely better than good. Well, most of us. When the song ended, she looked at Stilton.
“You’re not very good. Why are you in the band?” It was a question directed at me even while she looked at him.
“Well…I…” Stilton stammered.
“He’s got Harry by the short hairs and he’s yanking on them with tweezers.” Bill seemed overly proud of his explanation. Shelby looked at me.
“It’s a long story.”
“We ain’t go nothing but time.”
The story still sounded ridiculous and absurd in my head. She had this voice that demanded to be honored with a band that could stand up to it. I had a band that had a guy who couldn’t play his way out of a shoebox if you cut down four sides for him. I had to explain to her how I poisoned his dad’s dog and how he was blackmailing me.
“His dad works for my dad at the oil company,” Stilton said. “They wouldn’t let me in the band so I told him I’d get his dad fired if he didn’t let me in.” I looked at him in amazement. I wouldn’t have expected him to lie for me. I had no idea if she bought it. Given her prescience about me, I doubted it.
“Well you’re not very good. Do you practice?”
“That’s not enough. You have to practice all the time. You have to give up everything else and practice. You have to live with that guitar. It’s not enough to be talented. It’s not enough to have a rich daddy. If you’re going to be in this band, no matter how you managed to get in, you’re going to be good. If you can’t be good, you won’t be playing.” She said this all as a matter of fact, not threatening, not vindictive. Just an explanation of how things were going to go from here on out. She didn’t even act like it was her band. She was just making it clear that there were standards here, like everywhere else in life and no amount of money or influence or blackmail was going to allow anyone to subvert those standards. I couldn’t tell if they were her standards or something pre-existent beyond the realm of my experience.
“Give me your guitar.” For a brief fleeting moment, I thought she might beat him to death with it. I could tell by the look in his eyes, he was considering the same thing. Tentatively, he handed her the instrument.
“Play it like this.”
And then she showed him exactly how she expected it to be played. The notes were light and supplemental to the feeling of the song. There was no personal interpretation, just a perfect accompaniment. After 20 bars or so, she handed it back to him.
“That’s how you should play it next time we rehearse.”
Stilton looked like a car with four flat tires. He was visibly smaller as if someone had reached into his soul, pulled out his ego and let half the air out of it. I doubt he’d ever heard someone talk to him like that. To his credit, he took the guitar back quietly and without resentment.
She looked at me.
“What’s next? No use standing around gawking. This is your band, start acting like it.”
I knew that wasn’t the case anymore. Everyone else knew it too. Like a shadow corporation set up to funnel money from one place to another, I was just a shell. She was the substance and no amount of my “leading the band” would ever change that. Strangely, that suited me just fine.
The rest of rehearsal went in much the same manner. She seemed to just know all the music. If she had said she was born knowing the music, we wouldn’t have argued about it. She could sing anything we played and probably then some. We certainly didn’t run into any songs she didn’t know. She gave pointers to all of us, subtle changes in phrasing or tone or approach. She sang like there was an audience of thousands listening, each song given the same level of concentration and effort. Even when one of us screwed up and we had to start over, she jumped right back into the song as if nothing had happened. After we had run through all the songs we knew, we waited for directions.
“So do you want me in the band?” As usual, this was not what I expected from her. We all knew it was clear she was the most talented and we should have been asking her that question. The other three looked at me.
“Well, umm, sure we’d love to have you. You seem like you’re a good fit and you’re a great singer.”
“Great.” Her smile was radiant and honest. “When’s the next rehearsal?”
“Cool, see you then.”
And she left, leaving the four of us staring at an open door to the basement stairs. Radically, in the span of two days, the band had changed in two fundamental ways. I wasn’t sure if things were better or worse but they were definitely different.
“Where did you find her?” Wool asked.
“I really don’t know. I think she found me more than anything.” I told them the story about the rest stop, how she had just appeared because she wanted to hear me play. I left out the part about falling in love with her. It didn’t seem that prudent.
“She’s good,” said Bill. “Real good.”
“Yeah. She is.” I didn’t say it so much for confirmation as out of a sense of wonder.
“I’ll get better,” Stilton said.
“I know. Thanks for not telling her about your dad’s dog.”
And with that, we started packing up. I put my horn in the case and realized I didn’t deserve to even have it. I had this talent, a river running through my veins that pulsed with the beat of music and emotion but I had been ignoring it my whole life. Sure I could play but not play, not like she could sing. I had been cheating my talent all these years like some fat old bastard sneaking across town to sleep with a whore while his wife went to a church social. I had pretended I could play, showed off for my parents but all I was doing was pretending. There was this ability I had that I had specifically chosen to short change, to push to the side while I went on about being a pretentious asshole. I thought I was dedicated but it was all just play acting. Listening to her sing, watching her work, I realized nothing I had done meant a damn thing as far as the sound coming out of my horn was concerned. I looked at it lying in the case and made a promise not to neglect it or my talent any longer. But promises are easy to make and hard to keep and Fate had other plans.