Monday, October 15, 2012

Old-Fashioned Fiction Writing Contest: 2nd Place

OBSOLETE MEDIUM
by Bill Floyd

THE KID means well, so she lets him make his pitch and then she politely declines.
   “But, I mean, people should have a chance to hear you,” this kid says, one arm draped over the back of a chair he’s pulled up beside her piano.
   “People do have that chance,” she points out, tracing the room around them with one finger, slightly swollen at the knuckle. “I’m at the bar in the Monument Avenue Sheraton on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays year round.”
   He doesn’t hear her. He’s too smitten with the serendipity of coming across the woman who recorded Fever Feet thirty-odd years ago, “one of my favorite albums, really unfairly overlooked,” as he’d rambled, obliviously, during his introduction. The kid is one of those hip young types, fashionably bearded, skinny jeans, porkpie hat cocked in a careful approximation of carelessness. His eyes say he’s at least one drink past his usual limit. Probably a tech guy, in town for a conference, or making a sales pitch, or troubleshooting at one of the countless local office parks. He’d been eyeing her from the bar for half-an-hour before he worked up the nerve to amble over and ask if she was the same Lori Trace who’d made Fever Feet. The album enjoys a popular resurgence every few years, and Lori’s daughter calls from Phoenix to read her articles from the web, but Lori never sees any money from reissues or anything. She’d made some bad business decisions back in the old days.
   And all this hipster kid sees is her bad decisions. He sees her playing nightly sets of standards in a hotel bar near the airport, a bar much like her tip jar: rarely more than a quarter-full. Her fingers are delicate on the keys of the slightly out-of-tune baby grand, her voice hushed by design. Every few weeks, one of the solitary sales reps killing time at the bar, frazzled from a daylong string of connecting flights, will look up from their drinks or their phones and their eyes will glaze over a little and Lori will know she’s been heard.
   “I’m only saying this because I really respect you,” the hipster insists now. His guileless introduction had expanded into a sprawling ramble, wherein he’d told her how much her voice and music had meant to him during a difficult period in his life. He hadn’t lingered on the details, choosing instead to pitch a booze-derived fantasy of trying to book her some studio time, a web broadcast or something. Says he manages a band back in Austin, where he’s from. “This could be a chance for you—”
   She smiles and nods as he justifies himself. Ricky, watchful from behind the bar in his vest and bow tie, gives her a look like: This guy a problem? and she shakes her head almost imperceptibly as the hipster tells her about her chances. All her life, people have told her about her chances. Mom, who gave Lori and her sisters a chance despite the worst Dad could dish out; Mr. Bloxam, her high school band teacher, talking about Lori’s talent and how she had real potential; the first dozen agents in those frigid early New York days, telling her on their authority that she had no chance; Douglas, naked beside her in a tangle of sheets in some cheap California rental, listening as she sung the song she’d written, his stoned eyes and the way he’d jumped right up and said, “We gotta get this out there, baby, this has the chance to go big.”
   “Big” turned out to be three, four years, tops, backed by Douglas’s band, performing for rooms of as many as five or six thousand kids. Appearances on local TV. People back home who heard her on the radio.
   And then progressively smaller rooms, and then no rooms at all. Playing her Casio at home, singing in the car. Puzzled rejection overcome by joy undiminished. The wonder of realizing she didn’t miss the scene, even though she did miss Douglas. Their marriage hadn’t outlasted the dive. Her second marriage endured nearly twenty years, with the kids and the houses and all the rest, but in her heart she’d always loved Douglas helplessly, loved him best.
   Does this hipster kid look a little like him? She doesn’t even know if Douglas is alive or dead. He’d dropped completely off the map. There was a time she wouldn’t have believed anything less possible.
   So now she puts a hand on the young man’s arm and says, “Thank you sweetie, no. But I do have some CDs for sale. Mostly cover songs, but there’s a few originals on there, too.”
   “CDs?” Drawing a blank.
   She reaches into the tasteful hinged box she keeps underneath her piano bench and shows him one of her CDRs. Lori’s daughter had helped to record the album on her laptop during one of her visits. There’s a silly photo scanned onto the insert, Lori with her head lying on her arm in a pose of guileless sentimentality. Her daughter’s idea, of course.
   “Five dollars,” she tells the hipster.
   He actually makes a face. After kissing her ass for ten straight minutes, indulging his fantasy of her triumphant comeback, he makes a face. “Most artists promote themselves with free songs on the internet,” he says, as if explaining a complex math problem to a slow-witted child.
   “And which do you listen to more?” she asks. “What you pay for or what you get for free?”
   His wallet is chained to a belt loop on his jeans. She is more certain than ever that he makes his living with computers, managing his band on the side. A hobby that no doubt puts him in contact with a lot of willowy young girls, not the kind Lori sees in the Sheraton bar, the ones doing the professional thing; sometimes they seem to be made completely of hems and heels, and no doubt they are good at what they do. But when they are alone in the bar, listening to her play, sometimes they seem so exhausted they can barely prop themselves up. Lori plays extra mellow, hoping for that glazed look.
   The hipster exchanges his cash for her disc. He says he looks forward to hearing it and how it’s been a real pleasure to meet her. He hands her a card with his email address, “just in case you change your mind.”
   “Won’t you stick around for a few more songs?”
   He smiles. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
   After she’s begun, midway through her second set, the hipster gets Ricky to send over a glass of expensive wine. She nods at him and plays a vamp-y arrangement of “Snakebit” from Fever Feet. The kid breaks into a grin. The creeping arthritis that sometimes makes this stretch of the night difficult is forgotten, as are the doctors’ evaluations of her chances, all of it fades. Her back is straight and her dress is cheap but her voice is elegant smoke, a silk sash unknotted, lipstick on a tumbler. Ricky glazes. The kid sings along, he knows every word.

© William Floyd 2012

Bill Floyd lives in North Carolina. He's written a dozen novels, one of which, The Killer's Wife, was commercially published in 2008. He knows that the world can be a very difficult place, but feels that as long as The Melvins are still touring, things can't be but so bad. His micro-fiction can be found at http://sixsentences.ning.com/profiles/blog/list?user=2d7yp9hmruccs.

9 comments:

  1. This story could go on and on, for me. I want to know how Lori copes down the road, when her hands give out. I love that Bill made this kid both cocksure and clueless, verging on annoying and yet slightly sweet, too. I love that the kid observed Lori closely but didn't really SEE her fingers. And that the story so perfectly captures the way we walk around in our own bubbles, each with our own back stories, and hardly ever really know each other.

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  2. Great atmosphere, and I like the way your action is so well tied to the introspective. Fine work and best to you.

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  3. y'know...i thought for sure the hipster was going to walk out on her. but he stayed. i'm so glad he stayed. maybe he'll be back tomorrow night, too? there's a part of me that hopes he really will convince her to get dive into the internet thing, and that the next shot isn't the last shot. one can hope?

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  4. I loved this tale with its intimate setting and emotional resonance. Although it's particular in its descriptive work, the underlying bittersweet time of life it represents (for both characters) is universal. I could identify most with the older character and how, realizing her capabilities and limits, she was tired of hearing false promises (or those that never seem to pan out) and she just wanted to accept her accomplishments, file them in her resume, and have them acknowledged. I think that time comes to many lives...

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  5. I loved these characters- both looking at the past and future for different reasons- she reminded me of a Ricky Lee Jones-type-nice work Bill

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  6. Thanks to all the commenters, and to Gita & Mike & Michael for giving us another venue. We were supposed to write about relationships, and instead of going for a relationship between two people (which Bill L. and Amy H. did about as well as it can be done, anyway) I wrote about the relationship between an artist and her art. In the end, we have to do it for the love and not the tangible rewards, because the tangible rewards slip so easily away. But if you can still get someone to listen, to read, to watch closely--then you've done something that matters just a little.

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  7. You had me intrigued all the way through, and then the smallest detail, "lipstick on a tumbler," made me want to stand up and cheer for good writing. Last night as I was reading, Gail came into my office and I explained that I had won third place. He left me to my reading. When I showed up in the house, he said, "Well?" I said, "Whew! Third is where I belong!" Bravo, to the two of you. And BRAVO to Gita for hosting this lovely contest.

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  8. You rose to the occasion, Bill, and your take on the relationship angle was both unique and very damn cool. The kid reminded me of Treme's DJ Davis, and the singer of so many artists I love. You can play Misty for me anytime.

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  9. 'atmosphere' nailed it - very nice and tuneful - echoes in my head. Well done Bill.

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