This is the second part of our exploration of That Time Merit Was In a Band. This story held the kernel of Merit’s character, and a lot of campy laughs, as well as appearances by some names you’ll recognize from the CV world.
Enjoy Part 2 in its campy awfulness!
# # #
Twenty minutes later, I was still standing half-dressed in front of my closet. What to wear while performing was a difficult decision. Too much material, and I looked bookish. Too much skin, and I wouldn’t be able show my face in class on Monday morning. (Some of my students found it amusing to attend our shows for the novelty.) My gaze fell on a half-naked hanger in the middle of the closet. It was the “black, slinky thing,” a gauzy, strapless top that I could wear with jeans and heels. Hair down and contacts in, and I’d be a club diva. Hair up and glasses on, my favorite Takamine guitar in front of me, and I looked like an indie princess.
“Thank God for adaptable, black, slinky things,” I said, pulling it off the hanger.
I changed quickly, freshened my makeup and hair—leaving it down—and padded back downstairs, heels in hand. Perfect timing—a knock sounded at the door.
“Who is it?” I called out, dropping the heels on the couch. It wasn’t that I needed to ask, but for security purposes, it seems wise.
“Let me in, you crone!”
“Hello, Mal,” I said, pulling the door open. Mallory Henry, a vision in blue, rushed in the front door, arms loaded with clothes.
“I couldn’t decide what to wear,” she cried, dumping the pile on the floor. She stood in the middle of my living room, naked but for the bra and plaid men’s boxers she was wearing, her straight, electric-blue hair piled into a messy lump on her head. It wasn’t so much the lack of clothes that surprised me, but the fact that she’d come to me with her dilemma. If I erred toward Marc Jacobs, Mallory erred toward stilettos and vinyl. I wasn’t sure I could help.
I glanced at the pile of clothes—tweed, houndstooth, sweaters and skirts in neutral colors. Very Working Girl, very un-Mallory.
“Um, Mal? What happened to your clothes?”
She understood my confusion. “It’s an audition, K. I mean, there’s all this pressure, and I don’t know what to wear.” Mallory, always ready to make an overly dramatic point, threw herself into the pile.
“Just suffocate me now, Kate. Just do it.” She covered her eyes with one hand and flung a tasteful, black, a-line skirt in my general direction. “This is what we’ve been reduced to Kate! Us! Fidelity!”
“Fidelity” was Mallory’s favorite band name suggestion; 18 months after our first gig, and the five of us hadn’t chosen one yet. The booking agents had taken to calling us “O’Connell, etc.” when arranging out shows.
I nudged a hunter green, double-breasted blazer with my toe. Blech. “Where did this stuff come from?”
Mallory sniffed and rolled over, staring up at me.
“God, you look great,” she said, a hint of surprise in her voice. “I like your top.” She sniffed again. I wasn’t going to let her borrow it. “Your hair looks good, too.” That was a compliment I could take well. Today was a good hair day. Mine was long, thick and dark, and parted on the side. It looked nice today, doing some kind of unplanned wavy thing.
“Thank you, Mallory. Now focus: Whose clothes are these?”
“My mother’s. I was planning on wearing my wee skirt”—and it was wee, barely 10 inches long from waist to hem—“but had to pick something up at home and Mom said because it was an audition I should wear something respectable.”
She sat up, leaning back on her forearms. “I don’t do respectable, Kate,” she said, her voice low and completely serious.
I sighed. I loved Mallory, but she was a handful. At 23, she was a brilliant musician and great songwriter, but not the most—stable of personalities.
“I think we should give Mr. Greer a good indication of what our show would really be like.” She was quiet, waiting for the magic words. “Go upstairs and see what you can find,” I said. She squealed, and pulled herself out of the pile and threw herself up the stairs. I hated letting her borrow her clothes. They always came back with strategically-placed rips or safety pins in them.
I began folding the rejected clothes pile and waited for her to come back down. Fifteen minutes later, and she still wasn’t back yet. There wasn’t much in my closet that she’d have worn; I wondered what she’d gotten into.
She finally came down, her hair unbound and falling like a strange blue halo around her shoulders. She’d found a short, black skirt, not nearly as tiny as her ‘wee’ one, but short enough to make her mother uncomfortable. She’d also donned a sleeveless, silver, sequined top, that I was pretty sure had been part of an old band uniform.
“Like?” she said, twirling around. She did look good. Weird, but good—kind of a toned-down club kid.
“You look great,” I said. “Are you ready?” I checked the clock again—nearly 5:30. “We need to get down to West to set up. I think we’re first, and our employer savant won’t be happy if we push back the schedule.”
Mallory grinned conspiratorially.
“Do you know what I heard?” she asked. I raised a brow. This would be good. Mallory was a student of the occult, and was passionate about the topic and her own theories. If a web site had “Wicca” or “vampire” in the title, she was all over it. So any time she had news, it involved some major supernatural development.
And there had been a number of supernatural developments lately; vampires, apparently quite a community in our little town, were starting to come out of the paranormal closet. They’d held a series of press conferences over the last few weeks, generally of the “You should get to know us” or “We aren’t all bad varieties. The few who’d outed themselves weren’t popular; people were, understandably, a little freaked out. Most people reacted with fear or rage or some combination of both; my English lit students went to the source—discussing Buffy with such reverence that it was as if Joss Whedon had written a bible of vampire habits.
Mallory, of course, ate it up. She was convinced that all big cities, including ours, had swaths of otherworldly beings running around. We’d even spent a two-week vacation last year—before the vampire revelations—traipsing around the dark streets of New Orleans. She’d hoped to get a glimpse of a dark, sexy vampire slinking down one of the city’s gaslit alleys. She was so excited; I’d mostly followed her around with a daiquiri in my hand. Strawberry, of course.
Eager to tell me her secrete, she leaned toward me and lowered her voice. I stood five feet away her, in an apartment otherwise empty of people, but she felt the need to whisper.
“They say,” she paused for dramatic effect, “that he’s a vampire,” she said, quietly, as if afraid someone would hear us. I looked around.
“Why are you whispering, Mallory?” I asked the question, but I’d watched enough science fiction to recognize her “magic envy,” to realize that her belief in these stories was driven by her wish that there was something more out there, something magical.
She arched a brow back at me and twirled a strand of blue hair around her finger. “You never know who’s around, Kate. You just never know.”
# # #
Thirty minutes and two more changes of clothing later, we finally emerged from the brownstone, guitars in tow. Mallory still had on the ex-band uniform, but I wasn’t going to argue. If Mr. Greer decided to eject us from the schedule because of her sequins, we probably needed a new musical HQ, anyway.
It was a short drive to West. The club was housed in the renovated shell of the former West High School. A massive, three-story brick building constructed in the 1930s, the school was closed years ago when the board felt renovation of its narrow hallways and antiquated plumbing and heating systems would be too expensive; the school, and the students, moved into a shiny new high school in the suburbs. The old West High School building sat empty and dilapidated for years. Five years ago, an adventurous sculptor bought the building at a steal and, along with a crew of his friends, stripped out the inside to build a set of inexpensive studios for artists in town—kind of a modern-day art commune. Unfortunately, they quickly ran out of money, leaving the skeleton of the building. An adventurous concert promoter was next in time to buy the building, and he’d made a good investment. West had only been open in its newest form for a year, but was a rousing success, hosting the city’s favorite music venue and a popular, if very exclusive, VIP-only bar. The line for the bar—known as The Inner Sanctum—usually stretched around the block on weekends.
We played two or three times a month, usually on Friday nights, often opening for the show’s larger acts. We were still second-class citizens in the local music scene, but didn’t worry too much about that. We were local; they were national. It was the way of things.
The building was quiet when we arrived; it was strange to see such a large, and usually dark, space full of light and empty of people. The first floor venue was sparse—25 foot brick walls, concrete floor, with a wooden stage near one end; the bulk of the second floor had been removed to create the space. Modern-styled leather benches were placed at intervals along the sides, and a tangle of steel girders and cables held lights and lasers above us. They were rarely used for the bands, but kept the crowd entertained when West hosted goth or techno nights. Maybe not surprisingly, Mallory was a goth night regular.
There were three more “Fidelity” members in addition to Mallory and myself; all of them were waiting at West when we arrived. Joe Calvin, our drummer, was a relatively quiet computer technician that Mallory and I found in coffee shop one night. Ty Swanson played bass guitar and sang backup, much to the chagrin of his law firm colleagues, and Matthew Styles, our pianist, spent his evenings with the band trying to exorcise the ghost of 11 years of classical piano lessons. Matthew didn’t enjoy classical music, a fact easy to remember if you’d seen him perform. He didn’t so much play the piano as beat the notes out of it.
“Boys,” said Mallory in greeting, sloughing her guitar case. She set about to unbuckle and remove her 12-string acoustic while I gave a round of hellos to the rest of the crew. I hadn’t seen them since Tuesday, our usual weekly rehearsal day. Our schedules were too divergent to allow for frequent practices, so we tried for at least one marathon session on Tuesday evenings, usually in Joe’s garage.
I set down my guitar case and said hello to Joe and Ty. I ignored Matthew for the time being; he was already at the piano, and it was usually best not to disturb him once he planted himself on the bench. He got a little testy.
“Hey, K,” Joe said. “Nice of you to join us.” The band had unloaded all the drum kit pieces, which were still wrapped in their cushy nylon bags, but hadn’t yet unwrapped them.
“The cover girl couldn’t decide what to wear,” I responded, giving him a smile and gesturing toward Mallory. Joe ran his eyes over her small frame, which was still busy fiddling with the guitar. She’d moved to tuning the strings.
“Was that the result of a conscious process?” Ty asked quietly, wrapping a hand around my waist and giving me a quick squeeze. His bass, which was on a strap, was nestled against his free side, one hand protectively across the body of the guitar. I put my head on his shoulder.
“Sadly, yes. A very lengthy, analytical process.” We stood together and smiled for a moment longer until Mallory rose off the floor.
“Is that a band uniform?” Joe asked with a chuckle.
“It’s not like I can’t hear you,” she said, her eyes still on the 12-string. “Smart asses.” Apparently satisfied with her preparations, she laid the guitar gently on the drum riser and walked off stage.
“Is she pissed?” Joe asked.
“Eh, she’s probably gone off to flirt with Harris.” Harris was a beefy brunette that guarded the entrance to The Inner Sanctum. He towered at least a good foot over Mallory’s petite 5’5” frame. She made eyes at him, flipping that blue hair around, every time she saw him.
I helped the Joe and Ty unwrap and set up the drum kit; it was a smaller jazz set, usually requiring about 30 minutes to fully assemble. We were finished with the set up with 10 minutes to spare, at which point Mallory made her way back on stage, a huge grin on her face.
“You are going to freak,” she said, pinching me lightly on the arm and shouldering her guitar.
“What are you talking about?”
“Him,” she said. “The owner. You’ll freak.” She wiggled her eyebrows at me, mouthing “vampire” before looking down at her guitar, her eyes glazing over. I rolled my eyes at her, a fact that she ignored. She had a keen ability to shut out everything but her playing. She played a 12-string guitar, and I wondered if it was the complexity of the instrument or her . . .well . . . flightiness that required her to concentrate so hard.
We were all assembled on stage, waiting for the signal to begin. I stood in the middle front, with Mallory and Ty on either side of me. Joe and Matthew sat behind us. I glanced behind me. Joe, long brown hair fanned out behind his back, twirled his drumsticks nervously. I flashed him a smile, and got one from him in response. Matthew sat solemnly behind his piano, fingers perched above the keys. He stared down at the keyboard, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. Joe prepared to rock; Matthew prepared for battle.
I turned back and smiled, fingering the strings on my guitar to check its tune.
A voice rang out through the warehouse. The lights had been dimmed and spots thrown on the stage. I couldn’t see anything, but raised a hand to my face to shield the glare of the spot.
“’Kate’ is fine. And yes?”
I heard nothing for a moment but a soft shuffling of paper.
“Begin,” ordered the voice.
I ignored my sudden desire to roll my eyes, knowing that Greer—assuming that’s who was giving the orders—could see everything I did on stage. I took a breath, and began the count that felt like an incantation. “One, two, three, four.” Like magic, we started playing on cue, all together, all personal battles lost in the sensation of our five sounds melding into one. I always held my breath after the fourth count and had never been able to get over the sensation that I’d say the word, and silence would follow. But, inevitably, the sound came. And it was good.
We played a short song, a two-minute number that Mallory had written. I was the only vocalist for this one, and my voice rang clear over the soft guitars and the sound of Ty’s brush-ended drumsticks on the snare. This was the lightest of our songs, a melancholy tribute to Mallory’s last boyfriend, a lament that she’d written when he’d been unable to overcome his addiction. It was short, but powerful.
Two minutes later, the building was silent again. Joe and Mallory glanced at me. I gave a light shrug, and waited in silence.
The voice again rang out: “Fine,” it said.
We stood there a moment longer, unsure of what to do. Did “fine” mean we were done? That he liked the song? That he liked us?
I raised a hand to my brow again, peering into the audience.
“Excuse me?” I asked, making it sound as much like a question as I could.
“Fine,” he said again. “You’re done.” I checked the side of the stage—the members of a second band were waiting in the wings for our spot. I took a breath, and turned to Ty and Matthew.
“Pack it up,” I said, pulling off my guitar. I knew they wanted to object, but they’d follow my lead. I could feel them moving behind me as I walked offstage. I found a friendly face in the wings—Meg Tyler, the singer who was apparently auditioning next. She sang alone, just her and her acoustic guitar. I envied her mobility.
“What time are you on?” I asked.
“7:30,” she said. “You guys didn’t take long.” I looked at my watch.
“What time is it now?”
She gave me a look of sympathy. Nothing good could come from a two-minute audition.
“He can’t fire us,” I said. “We’re practically the house band.” She shrugged sympathetically, but I knew the look in her eyes. She wanted our spot.
I walked down the stairs on the side of the stage and headed back into the audience. Much easier to see from this side of the spots. A huddle of men stood in the middle of the floor. West didn’t have any seats, just a large open space where fans could stand or dance.
“Mr. Greer?” No answer. I spoke louder as I neared the group, although it was difficult to hide my rising anger. A two-minute set?! We played one song—a good song, but not representative of an entire performance. And it had taken us nearly 30 minutes just to set up Ty’s drums.
“Mr. Greer!” That one was more of a demand.
The crowd of seven men split down the middle, spreading to the sides, revealing a tall man in black in the midst of them. He was tall, maybe 6’3”, and broad in the shoulders. He wore a dark suit; it looked expensive even from where I was standing. His head was down, his hair straight and dark and longer, and he looked down at a clipboard in his hands.
“Yes, Ms. O’Connell?” he asked, a line of irritation in his voice. He finally raised his head and straightened himself to his full height.
I nearly gasped. He was, in a word, beautiful. His face was chiseled, strong and his lips were full—he had one of those completely kissable bottom lips. His straight, dark hair fell nearly to his shoulders and was parted down the middle; it was tucked behind both ears. His jacket was unbuttoned, one hand on his slender hip, his jacket slung aside behind his hand. Beneath the jacket was a starched, impeccably white dress shirt and neatly knotted tie. I realized that I’d been staring for a moment and blinked, meeting his eyes.
Blue. The bluest eyes I’d ever seen, and I ‘d seen nearly 600 college freshman in the last two years alone.
His entourage stood quietly around him, as if waiting for some order.
“Ms. O’Connell?” he said again, a grin curling the corner of his mouth.
That was enough to remind me why I was there, standing open-mouthed in this crowd of entrepreneur groupies. I stood up straight and arched a brow. We could both play pretty and arrogant.
“That was an incredibly short audition, Mr. Greer,” I said, assuming this was him. No one else had spoken up, and the others stood at his side expectantly, as if waiting for an order.
Greer didn’t respond, he just stood there all silent and pretty. This called for additional weapons.
I crossed my arms. That might have perked up my décolletage a bit. No harm in using one’s assets, I thought. His eyes drifted down, just for a moment, and flicked back up to meet my eyes. Cue the brow arching; this time we did it together.
Greer looked down at his clipboard.
“Get the other band ready,” he said, checking his watch. “Ten minutes.” One of the lackeys nodded and moved toward the stage; Greer moved a step closer, two steps closer, and then walked past me toward the back room.
“Ten minutes,” he said again, over his shoulder.
I was suddenly struck with the sensation that I was completely invisible. I looked down. Cleavage still there. Arms still there. Hips and legs still there. I was visible; he was an arrogant ass. The world made sense again. I breathed deeply, and, after a quick, reassuring wave to Mallory and the others, I followed Greer into the warehouse’s office suite. I’m not sure if he was even aware I was behind him. He disappeared into a door to the left, and I grabbed the knob before it closed.
# # #
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Part 3 — the thrilling non-conclusion!