Play it by Ear

By Claudia Pierce

Featured Art: The Big Red Ball by Ellen Lanyon

Recently I’ve become a “regular” at an especially sub-standard diner called Sam’s World. Although I have no special fondness for the soggy potatoes, greasy burgers or limp lettuce leaves they dish up, Sam’s World is within walking distance. This is important because I have no car and my apartment has no kitchen. There is an old, barely functioning refrigerator in the narrow hallway between the bathroom and the only other room. I don’t hold out much hope for this refrigerator since I can’t bring myself to defrost it. A solid block of ice has formed over the opening to the freezer, and at some point I expect the whole thing will just blow up.

One day I might be out of debt and able to afford an apartment larger than one hundred and fifty square feet. Then again, I may not. When I consider the size of my indebtedness I realize I could quite easily be dead before I pay it off.

Anyway, it’s Tuesday evening at Sam’s World; I’m not very hungry but am in need of comfort so I decide to skip actual food and have ice cream and coffee.

BUM fired me today but then he changed his mind. He said I didn’t really have to leave but if I wanted to it would be all right. Then he went back to our mail-sorting session as if nothing unusual had occurred. I would guess an episode like that does not bode well for job security.

BUM is my private name for Art Messner, who owns the company. BUM stands for Boring Ugly Man. He’s a small-time con artist turned multi-milliondollar advertising entrepreneur by virtue of his ability to successfully repackage one basic idea over and over to hundreds of companies. He bores people to coma with tiresome variations on his rags-to-riches story, usually while eating noisily with food spewing from his mouth and dribbling down his shirt.

BUM has a much younger significant other who loathes him but adores his money, and is angling hard to become wife number six. My private name for her is MGB—Maleficent Greedy Bitch. She struts around the office, barking at people. No one seems to know exactly what her job is but whatever it is, she does it with great aplomb.

BUM hired me without her permission, and I’m sure she put him up to the whole “firing” incident today.

Although I am theoretically BUM’s executive assistant, I have never before attempted an office job. The employment agency sent me up for the job because BUM doesn’t really need an executive assistant. Reason: BUM doesn’t work. He does nothing at the office except entertain clients and cronies, and he only needs someone who can look like an executive assistant and keep his schedule
straight. He employs a full-time catering manager who handles all his wining and dining requests, so I rarely even have to pour coffee.

When I went up for the job, the employment agent suggested I wear a serious dark suit with an outrageously short skirt. I followed his suggestion, and got the job on the spot. MGB was out for the day, and when she came back the next morning there I was.

When she saw me sitting outside his office, she stormed into his office, pretty much shouting, “Who is that?”

BUM quickly closed the door, and when she came out about ten minutes later, she seemed to have composed herself. She introduced herself but did not shake my hand. She looked me up and down, narrowed her eyes, and made her exit. I knew from that moment my days were numbered, but I hoped I could parlay the job into at least eighteen months, which is what it would take to reduce my debt to something below critical meltdown. I now believe a major miracle will have occurred if I last there for another month.

Most of the employees at Messner are trying to succeed in some impossibly competitive artistic endeavor like acting or film writing. I myself only recently threw in the towel on whatever may have been left of my dream to be a jazz singer.

I threw in the towel because—after twelve years of struggling—I finally figured out the odds are not good for jazz singers. I would guess there are at least three hundred jazz singers for every two people who enjoy listening to jazz singers. Then, among those people who do enjoy listening to jazz singers only .0001 percent of them ever actually get into their cars on any given night, drive to a jazz club, and pay money to hear a jazz singer sing. Do the math.

Right now, I couldn’t honestly tell you what I want to do. I don’t have enough money to go back to school or pay for some sort of career training, and even if I did, I don’t know what this mythical “new career” might be. And although I am less than thrilled with my job, I am certainly making more money at it than I ever eked out as a singer. It’s just that I don’t think I have much of a future in this line of work. Let’s face it: I still don’t know what an executive assistant is supposed to do, and even if I knew, I doubt if I could do it. Obviously, this could present problems down the line. I guess I’ll just ride it out until it ends, and worry about it then.

Newsflash: “Then” has become “now” rather quickly. Today, just before five, I was fired again—but this time it was strikingly final. After explaining why I was being terminated, the HR Director handed me a paycheck and escorted me out of the building.

The whole thing was rather surreal. The HR Director told me they had been monitoring my computer keystrokes, and they were terminating me because I had “on more than one occasion typed thoughts about Mr. Messner which were shockingly disrespectful.”

As I walked back to my apartment I tried to figure out how they knew who I was writing about—I always used my private names. Maybe it was the time I wrote, “BUM has the face of a hamster and the body of a goat,” and they recognized him from my uncannily accurate description.

When I get back to my tiny, dark, depressing apartment I sit down on the floor. The place isn’t big enough to hold a sofa—or a bed—and neither of my chairs is as comfortable as the floor. As I lean back against the wall, planning to contemplate my miserable life alone in the darkness for at least an hour, the phone rings and I pick it up. It is an agent I submitted a tape to over a year ago.

He tells me he has a great gig for me in Japan singing with an all-girl band in Osaka, and the costumes are provided by the management.

“Costumes?”

“Yeah, you know, satin hot pants and fishnet hose. Little sequined tops. They’re cute. And you’ll make $500 a week plus room and board.”

“Yeah, well, thanks, but I don’t really think that’s what I’m looking for.” I am reminded that calls such as this did influence my decision to give up singing.

“What are you looking for, Miss—”

I hear papers rustling on the other end of the line. Great. He doesn’t even know my name.

“Alex,” I say. “My name is Alex Stevens. I’m a jazz singer.”

“Are you blonde?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

His “oh” sounds quite final to me.

I am about to hang up when he says, “Look, I’ve got a two-night sub gig coming up next weekend in San Pedro. But you’ll have to mix it up. Do some pop and country. Can you do that?”

“Well, as I said, I sing jazz.”

“But you can sing anything, right?”

“Sure,” I pretty much lie.

“And you have a drum machine, right?”

“Yes,” I totally lie. “What’s it pay?”

“A bill a night.”

“OK. Where is it?”

He gives me the address and I hang up.

I will have to borrow a drum machine. There is no way to describe how much I hate drum machines. And even worse, I will have to accompany myself. There are musicians in this world—extremely well-coordinated musicians who can sit at a piano, and sing and play brilliantly at the same time—Diana Krall comes immediately to mind. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

And if that weren’t bad enough, this will be one of those gigs where I will have to sing songs I hate and can only perform poorly—the type of material that was not written for a voice like mine. I will be mis-booked, uncomfortable, unpopular, and unloved for two nights running. But I will come out of it with two hundred dollars. I will be one fourth of the way to next month’s rent. Of course I’ll do it. I pick up the phone.

“Hey Daryl, you using your drum machine next weekend?”

“Not sure yet. Why?”

“I need it.”

“I thought you bailed.”

“Yeah, well I did for a while but I lost my day job.”

“It’s probably an omen.”

“It’s an omen of being out on the street next month unless I can put something together fast.”

“You’re not going to be out on the street—you can move in with me for a while if you have to.”

My mind reels at the prospect. Daryl’s apartment is kind of like a war zone. But instead of guns and ammo he has empty beer cans, disembodied drum heads, and about twenty-five vintage guitars in various stages of non-repair all competing for precious floor space since the table, chairs, and bed are usually littered with strange-looking tools, guitar strings, and half-eaten slices of aging pizza. I’d actually feel better about living on the street.

“Hey. I’m just trying to be a friend. I’m not trying to jump your bones or
anything.”

Now there was an image I couldn’t bear to sustain.

“I know, Daryl, you’re a good friend. When will you know?”

“What?”

“The drum machine,” I say patiently.

“I can probably find out now—you wanna hold?”

“No, that’s all right. Just call me when you find out.”

I hang up, and slide further down the wall.

This definitely was not the scenario I set up for myself a few months ago. You know how it goes: if you fail at something you love you’re supposed to be able to grow old and hideously bitter while succeeding at something you loathe. And you’re supposed to be making enough money doing what you loathe to live in a nice place, drive a nice car, and drown your bitterness with ridiculously
expensive wine.

I, on the other hand, would now appear to be a failure right across the board—living a life with no justice, meaning, or cash.

The phone rings. It’s Daryl. He says I can come by and pick up the drum machine anytime—he’d bring it over but his truck is in the shop, “and by the way,” he adds, “you better practice with the drum machine before you try to use it onstage because the foot pedal’s acting up, and you might have to work it with your hand, and you can’t always get the fills in the right place.”

“Great,” I say. “Not only will I be a performing seal, I will be a bad performing seal.”

“Oh man, nobody knows the difference.”

“And if that’s true, it’s the worst part.”

“Alex, I’m telling you, you really need to lighten up. Just go with it, you know.”

Friday afternoon, I rent a car—a weekend special at Econo-Car. (Think one hundred and ten dollar deduction from two hundred dollars total pay.) I wince as I drive my “compact” (think toy car) out of Econo-Car’s lot.

I guess it was a mistake getting rid of the old Toyota. After I quit music and got the job at Messner, which was within walking distance of my apartment, getting rid of that car seemed like the perfect thing to do. After all, I was going to live frugally, make real money, and get out of debt. I was going to start a 401(k) plan. I was going to stay in my tiny apartment at my bizarre little job with no car until I was financially solvent. Then I was going to buy a really nice car, and live out the rest of my life as a normal, conventional member of society. Right.

I console myself by thinking I might make some good tips on this gig and totally recoup the cost of the rental car. But then I remember how unpredictable Daryl’s drum machine is, and how uncoordinated I am, and I realize that not only am I not likely to get any tips, I’ll be lucky if the club pays me off after the first night.

I drive home so I can load my equipment into the toy car—a task which requires more strategic planning skills than I knew I possessed. I drive the sixty miles to San Pedro with the front seat pushed as far forward as it will go. My knees are literally jutting into my chin.

When I finally find the obscure address, my worst nightmare has materialized: it is not a hotel, not a club. It is a lounge in a bowling alley. I remind myself this is money I otherwise would not have. I unload my equipment and haul it, piece by piece, into the place. There’s no stage or bandstand. The bartender points to a dark corner. I ask him if he could turn on the stage lights. He laughs. I say OK, and set up in almost total darkness. The house system is blaring vintage Springsteen, and there is no one in the lounge except the bartender, a waitress, and myself.

“Fewer people to witness my demise,” I mutter to myself.

The waitress walks over and asks me if I’d like a drink. I tell her maybe later, and continue setting up. I know plenty of people who drink on their gigs, but I don’t sing very well when I drink. And it has always annoyed me that as the night goes on, people buy you drinks. They send them over, and they expect you to drink them. And if you’re smart, you’ll at least pretend to be drinking them because the size of your tips in large part depends upon your camaraderie with the patrons of the establishment. I wonder how many other professions there are in this world where you can be penalized for not drinking on the job.

Of course it’s not necessarily that way in the serious jazz clubs but, as I believe I mentioned, there aren’t enough of those gigs to go around, especially if you don’t have a recording contract. So if you want to pay your rent, you ingratiate yourself with the party animals of this world who go out to drink and get down at places where there will be live music for them to shout over.

The first two sets I played to the backs of the bartender and the waitress who were watching TV. But around ten-thirty, at least fifteen pumped-up raucous bowlers—their games now over—showed up en masse with celebration on their minds. They wanted to hear every singer and every group whose songs I did not know (think did not want to know).

They wanted rock, rap, oldies, and boot scootin’ country. They wanted loud synthesized bass lines and screaming guitar tracks. They wanted multi-layered local harmonies and arrangements for full bands. They did not understand that even if I knew every note, word, chord, and riff of every song they requested, I, a lone singer with one crappy keyboard, a marginal P.A. system, and a cheesy little
half-broken drum machine, could not possibly reproduce what they wanted to hear. All they knew was: I wasn’t delivering the goods.

When the night was finally over and I was packing up to leave, the bartender came by to claim his brandy snifter from the top of my keyboard which amazingly enough did have a few dollars in it. I removed the bills and handed him the glass.

I was hoping he’d hand me a paycheck and a final goodbye, but all he said was, “See ya tomorrow.”

The next night, as I set up, I pretend I’m setting up at Carnegie Hall. Never mind that at Carnegie Hall I wouldn’t be doing the setting up. Whatever gets you through, right? Anyway, I’m deep into my little reverie as I separate and plug in cables when this guy walks over. He’s okay-looking, but a little too preppy-ish for my taste. He’s casually but expensively dressed, and he tells me one of his
friends from the office corralled him into pinch-hitting for a sick bowling team member last night. Then he asks me what I’m doing in a dump like this.

Oh boy, it’s your basic hit-on-the-singer opening line. I consider telling him he needs to think up a more original approach but decide against it. After all, if last night’s crowd was any indication of what my popularity index might be tonight, I can use an ally. So I say, “Well, you know, so many singers, so few clubs.”

“But you’re so good. You should be making CDs. You should be playing only the best clubs.”

“Thanks for the kudos but it’s time for me to start my first set here at the bowling alley. What would you like to hear?”

“Anything.”

“Please don’t say ‘anything.’ Tell me the kind of music you really like. I may not know your favorite song but maybe I can do something along the same lines.”

“Jazz.”

“Yeah, right,” I say.

“No really, I like jazz. Do you do any Billie Holiday?”

There weren’t any other customers in the place, and the waitress and the bartender were again watching TV behind the bar, so I turned off the drum machine and sang an entire set of Billie Holiday tunes.

At break time, he put a twenty-dollar bill in my tip jar and said he had to leave but he’d be back next week. I said, “Great, but I feel compelled to tell you I won’t be here. I’m subbing for somebody who’s the regular here. I understand she’s very good, and she’ll be back next week.”

“How can I hear you again?”

“Probably you can’t. I quit the business a few months ago but my day job fell through, and this gig is a one-time fluke.”

“But I know somebody in the business who might be able to help you.”

“Okay, then give me your name and address, and I’ll send you a tape. You can give it to anyone you want.”

He didn’t seem all that pleased with my response—he had no choice but to play this out on my terms, and he wasn’t getting my number. At least not tonight. He handed me his business card, said he’d be looking forward to receiving the tape, and left.

The rest of the night was an exact replay of the night before—different faces with similar requests, and ultimately another disappointed, borderline-surly crowd. The night finally ended, and I took my money and ran, as it were.

The next day, I returned the car to Econo-Car and took the bus home. Some weirdo was raving and ranting in the back of the bus about the devil and redemption, and when the bus stopped at Twenty-sixth Street, the guy bounded out of the bus and high-fived a hooded man on the sidewalk who was holding up a sign that read, “The moose is positive proof that demons have sex with
dogs.”

Sometimes I wonder if the lack of societal restraint in Los Angeles allows for a bit more freedom of expression than is really advisable.

When I finally get home, I’m thinking about the guy in the bar the night before—the one with the so-called friend who could possibly “help” me. I’ve heard this routine at least a hundred times, and here’s the translation: “I really want to sleep with you, and I will say anything that might get me closer to that goal.” But still. I have absolutely nothing going for me at this point. No job, no gigs, no prospects.

I fish through my gig bag, and pull out his business card: Scott Hensley, Esq. I think what the hell, and I mail him a tape.

A few days later, as I fully expected, he is on the phone wanting to get together for dinner. “What did your friend think of the tape, and who is he, anyway?”

“I’m having the tape messengered over to him this afternoon. He’s an entertainment lawyer and he has some pretty high-powered clients in the music business.”

“Are his clients into jazz?”

“Does it matter? I heard you sing all kinds of music Friday night, and you don’t seem to be limited to jazz.”

“Well, my tape is jazz, and that’s what I do best.”

“But if you got an opportunity to sign a contract singing something else—”

“I won’t. I’m too old to be a pop star. In fact, I’m almost too old to be a jazz singer.”

“Why don’t we just let Craig listen to the tape and take it from there?”

“Fair enough.”

“Will you have dinner with me?”

“Let’s start with coffee and see if we find any reason to work our way up to dinner.”

“You’re a very direct woman, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

We meet at a coffee house the next Saturday afternoon. He orders some mocha blended thing, and I order a double espresso with lemon.

I mentally compose my manifesto: I will subtly demonstrate to him that we are not at all compatible, but I will do so without pissing him off so he will still want to help me with my career.

This is a dance at which I have become quite expert but which generally fails to achieve the desired results. It has something to do with the nature of men: this guy wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in helping me with my career if he didn’t want me to shake his stick. And when he figures out I’m not going to shake his stick he will magically disappear. So my goal is to get some irrevocable progress made on the career thing before he realizes he’s never going to close the deal with me and the stick.

Conversationally, we begin with usual first-date stuff: where are you from, any brothers or sisters, ever been married? And predictably, we provide each other with our respective CliffsNotes versions of our life stories.

My boilerplate: thirty-four, from small town in Midwest, one brother; dad’s retired, mom died young, University of Illinois music major, Los Angeles career as dirt-poor, unsigned jazz singer, occasional relationships with dirt-poor, unsigned jazz musicians.

And oh yes, never married, no children.

His boilerplate: forty, from Palo Alto, divorced, no children, dad’s dead, mom still feisty in San Francisco Bay area, fifteen stressful years at large corporate downtown firm, currently at small laidback firm in Torrance, less pressure, shorter commute, more time for hiking, skiing, and dog.

And oh yes, undergrad honors at Stanford, law school honors at Yale.

“Textbook,” I tell him.

“What do you mean?”

“Right stuff does fast track, suffers pitfalls, grows older, wiser, then kicks back to enjoy simpler, more basic life. But why no children? It’s the part that doesn’t fit.”

“We tried every fertility technique available, but after a few years we decided it wasn’t meant to happen for us.”

“Why didn’t you adopt?”

“Neither one of us wanted to take on the responsibility of parenthood unless it was our own child.”

“And that’s because parents are granted a certain sense of immortality through the passing on of their genes?”

“Maybe, but why not? You want to immortalize yourself by recording your music.”

“No, all I ever wanted was to sing the kind of music I like to people who appreciate it. I also hoped I could make a decent living doing it, which didn’t quite pan out. But immortality isn’t exactly on my to-do list.”

“It could still happen.”

“Look, jazz is a dying form. Very few people want to hear it anymore. And when those few people die, it’ll just disappear.”

“That’s a very sad prediction.”

“Well, pull out your handkerchief ’cause that’s the direction the train is headed.”

Then I asked him why he said he wanted to hear jazz the other night, and he said it just came to mind for some reason.

“Okay. And why did you request Billie Holiday?”

“Because you were pressing for something specific, and that’s the only jazz singer I could think of!”

“So you would have been just as happy if I’d sat there singing Willie Nelson?”

“Sure. I just wanted to hear your voice—I told you anything would do. You didn’t believe me!”
At least he was honest.

We chatted for a while longer, then I made up an excuse about why I had to go, and he asked me how I thought the audition went.

“What audition?”

“Our audition. Do we qualify for the next round?”

“You mean dinner?”

“Well, yes, unless we have to work our way up to that with, oh, I don’t know, lunch, brunch? It’s your call.”

I had to admit the guy was not altogether without merit—he was smart and at least somewhat amusing. “Dinner’s fine,” I said, “but not tonight. I have plans,” I lied.

“Okay. When? You tell me.”

“How about next Friday?”

“Great,” he says. “I’ll call you Wednesday or Thursday and we’ll set it
up.”

On the way out the door I mentally congratulate myself on my performance. He thinks he has a chance of scoring with me and I’ve put him off for another week. That should give his friend, Craig, plenty of time to listen to the tape.

When I get home I check out job postings on my very slow, very old laptop with a bowl of popcorn and a beer. I read every administrative job listed on Monster, craigslist, and Career.com. It takes an hour and fifteen minutes, and when I finish, I’ve bookmarked six jobs—none of which I believe I have the slightest chance of getting.

It couldn’t be simpler, really. I have neither the skills nor experience to qualify for any of these jobs. And the realization fills me with anxiety so great I know there is no choice but to have another bowl of popcorn. I also know before this night is over I will have watched The Fabulous Baker Boys on DVD
for the twentieth time, and scarfed down what’s left of the Vanilla Swiss Almond Häagen-Dazs in the freezer—if, that is, I can manage to dig it out of there with a hammer and a chisel.

The next day Daryl calls.

“Hey, still looking for a straight gig type thing?”

“Definitely. What’s up?”

“Do you remember Sharon Brickman?”

“R&B singer. You used to date her, right?”

“Yeah. Well she’s moving to New York next week, and she’s been doing this waitress thing three nights a week. She says the money’s pretty good, and she’d like to pass it on to another singer, so I thought you might want it.”

“I’ve never been a waitress before.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just tell them you waitressed when you were in school, and you’re a singer and a friend of Sharon’s. She’ll show you the ropes before she goes. She says the job requires no thought and even less skill.”

“That sounds about right for me. Let’s go for it.”

Daryl gave me her number, and five days later I’m fully ensconced in my new job at Hoops—a theme restaurant designed, no doubt, to attract NBA stars but currently attracting—well, you can probably guess. The restaurant has a gymnasium-type floor, bench-type booths, and regulation size basketball hoops at either end. The booths have these toy basketball hoops on stands soldered
onto the tables, and bowls filled with little toy basketballs that patrons can throw through the toy hoops while they’re sitting in the booths.

My first night on the job was spent learning how to dodge these tiny errant, flying missiles while trying to balance huge trays filled with beer mugs and overflowing plates of burgers, fries, and onion rings.

At the end of the night, I wasn’t sure what part of me hurt the most: my legs, my feet, or the parts of my body that had gotten pinged from those damn flying balls.

Sharon suggested nurse’s shoes (dyed black) to match our “referee” uniforms, and support hose. I suggested a bulletproof vest. But when I counted up all the money I made in tips, I decided I could handle the job.

A few nights later, I finally had my first dinner with Scott. I’d canceled out on him twice because of my waitress gig. When I got to the restaurant, I could see him sitting at the bar with the look of a man who fully expects to be stood up. I wouldn’t say his face exactly lit up when he saw me but he did look pleasantly surprised.

During dinner, I regaled him with colorful stories from the front line of Hoops, and then I asked him if he’d heard anything from Craig.

“He loves your voice, and he agrees with you about the genre. He said you are a definitive jazz singer and it would be pointless for you to try to switch over to a more popular type of music, especially at your age.”

“He obviously knows the realities.”

“He thinks you’re great; he just doesn’t have any jazz contacts right now. But he’s going to hang on to your tape, and if he meets someone down the road who can help you he’ll go to bat for you.”

It doesn’t matter. As I told you before, I’m no longer in the business. And besides, I have this whole new career as a waitress,” I laughed, “which I can tell is going to be all-consuming.”

“As long as it’s not too all-consuming for you to have dinner with me,” he said quite seriously.

We actually had a very nice dinner, and I decided he was a good man, a man with whom I should at least give it a try. I mean, isn’t that what all those books out there are always preaching—Smart Women, Dumb-Ass Choices or whatever? This was my chance to finally not make a dumb-ass choice. I made a spontaneous decision to take this opportunity seriously, and to allow a relationship with him to occur.

In my case, the “not getting any younger” adage certainly applies, and now that I’m a waitress what kind of future am I looking at? Or forget the future—my present is not exactly inspirational. In my situation, how could I have even thought about blowing someone like this off. Let’s face it, this man could give me a life. Stability. A rustic house in Palos Verdes. A golden retriever. Ski trips in Aspen. Hikes in the mountains. And eventually, a feisty mother-in-law in Palo Alto. You know. All those things. I could learn to like dogs and hiking and cooking. I could learn to ski, couldn’t I?

It was as if the circumstances of my life had suddenly shocked the circuitry of my brain into growing a whole new batch of brain cells that other women—normal women with no proclivity for jazz—had been born with.

After dinner, we took a long walk on the beach. I let him drive me home instead of taking a cab as I had originally planned to do. We made another date for the following night to go to a concert at Disney Hall—Beethoven’s Fifth and Mozart’s Fortieth. I was heading for salvation—I could feel it in my bones.

For four months, life was predictable and good. I put in my three nights a week at Hoops, and not only got the hang of waitressing, I became pretty good at it. The better I got at it the less I disliked it, and the tips got bigger and bigger. I made enough money to buy a pretty decent used car. I usually spent one night a week either alone or with friends, and the remaining three nights—and days—I
spent at Scott’s. We hiked in the hills behind his house; we swam in his pool; we cooked gourmet meals in his state-of-the-art kitchen. We played Frisbee with his dog, Edna, and ate ice cream in bed.

Conversations with my friends always included at least ten minutes of me obsessing about this “breakthrough” relationship with this “normal” man who was going to “save me from myself.” No more deadbeat musicians for me—I was serenely strolling down the slow track to suburbia.

One night Scott unexpectedly stopped by Hoops. He asked me to meet him for a drink after work. We decided on a quiet, elegant hotel bar in the area. I realized after he left I’d have to go home first and change out of my “referee” uniform, so I got permission to leave my shift a few minutes earlier than usual. I rushed home, changed as quickly as I could, then rushed over to the hotel.

Scott got up when I came in the room and helped me with my chair, but his greeting didn’t include his customary quick kiss on the lips. He poured out two glasses from a bottle of Merlot, “I thought I’d just let this breathe until you got here.”

I took a sip. “Great, what’s up?”

He was silent for a minute—just sitting there; staring at the tablecloth; drinking his wine. He’s fortifying, I thought. Maybe I should just jump-start this whole thing.

“So,” I suggested, “you’re dumping me?”

He looked up, startled and speechless. My first shot—a dead-on hit.

Although it had occurred to me that on the nights I was working Scott may not exactly have been home alone, it hadn’t occurred to me that when I wasn’t around he might be cooking up something even more serious than what he had going with me.

The silence and Scott’s discomfort had become quite profound. Finally I said, “Is there any particular reason, or does it just seem like the right thing to do?”

His face registered pain and distress. I was not moved.

Finally he said, “I met someone. Someone who’s—better for me.”

“Ah, and that someone would be . . .?”

“Her name is Elizabeth. She’s a doctor. A pediatrician, actually, and she’s from—she grew up in the San Francisco area too. In fact, it turns out her father was a friend of my dad’s when they were in college.”

“Small world.”

He actually looked for a moment like he was going to respond with an enthusiastic affirmation until he saw the expression on my face.

“I get it, okay? She’s rich, she’s successful, and she comes from the ‘right stock.’ I’m sure mom will approve.”

“Alex, I’m forty years old, for Christ’s sake. I could care less what my mother thinks.”

“Well, I hope you and Elizabeth will have a wonderful life together, and in the meantime, would you mind sending my things over to my apartment by messenger tomorrow? I’m sure you’ll have no trouble locating them since you’ve obviously had some practice either hiding them from or explaining them to Elizabeth.”

He started to protest but I shook my head and stood up.

And then a really amazing thing happened. As I picked up my bag from the table I somehow managed to send the wine bottle and the two half-filled glasses flying—mostly onto Scott. I walked out of the room feeling mortified but vindicated.

So much for “good” men and even less for my ability to judge them.

Six months later I’m still working at Hoops. In fact, I picked up a fourth night there a couple of months ago so I could make enough money to move into a bigger apartment. I actually have a kitchen in the new place—and a sofa bed. I haven’t knocked off much of the debt, but I don’t worry about it as much.

Shortly after my blowout with Scott, Daryl started calling me on a daily basis to tell me that I needed to start singing again—not for money, but for love. After a few weeks of his exhaustingly energetic badgering, I hooked up with a jazz trio—partly to get Daryl off my case, partly because some recently buried but not quite dead piece of me knew he was right. The guys in the trio are really good players, and we play a gig or two every so often.

The other night, we played a trendy new jazz club on the Strip. We opened for Rick Carlson—a sax player who’s been kicking around town as long as any of us. He finally got a deal by putting together a very commercial “light jazz” package, and he’s been playing a lot of classy venues to promote his new CD.

Anyway, we’re halfway through the last number in our set, and I notice a couple being escorted to one of the reserved tables right in front. First I check out the woman. She certainly doesn’t look like someone who would be into jazz. She’s your basic blonde aristocrat—great bones, ultra-polished, serious rocks, and dressed to kill. Then I look at the man: it’s Scott.

Mike, our keyboard player, smiles at me as he’s winding down his solo. We’re doing a standard I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never got around to doing until now. It’s called “You’ve Changed.” If you don’t know the song it’s a smoky torch ballad and a great vehicle for a female singer.

I pick up after Mike’s solo at the top of the bridge.

You’ve forgotten the words I love you . . .” I close my eyes and listen to Dave’s spare, elegant bass line pulsing underneath us as Mike comps lightly around the melody.

I sing, “I can’t realize, can’t realize you ever cared—” as we heat it up to the equivalent of a musical explosion at the end of the bridge.

The crowd acknowledges our efforts by going absolutely nuts—applauding and hooting and whistling the way only jazz lovers do. We wind up the final verse as I hold on to the last note and the players gently shut it down. The room goes totally nuts again. As the crowd continues to applaud, I smile, call out the players’ names, and say thank-you into the mike. It occurs to me that if you have to run into the guy who dumped you, and if he’s with the “trophy” woman he dumped you for, this is not exactly a worst-case scenario.

I look down at the two of them. She is applauding politely. He is applauding slowly and heavily—as if each of his arms weighs about 200 pounds and he can barely move them.

I glance briefly into his eyes, and I think for an instant I see something there—a longing, or a yearning for something maybe. I’m not sure. Fortunately, he doesn’t come up to the stage with some phony “gee-what-a-surprise-to-see-you-congratulations-you-were-great” routine.

As the guys and I are breaking down equipment in the semi-darkness, I hear him ask Ms. Town & Country if she’d like to go out and “get some air before the main act,” and they mercifully disappear.

All of us were planning to stay for both of Rick’s sets but I suddenly feel like all the energy has been drained from my body. I just want to go home, get into bed, and watch some truly mind-numbing TV.

I don’t say goodbye to the guys; they’re still preoccupied with getting the stage cleared so Rick’s band can set up. I quietly slip out of the club and get into my car.

On the way home, I have an idea about that longing thing I think I saw in his eyes. Maybe for a moment he got a glimpse of the place I go when the playing and the singing come together just right, when you aren’t making music anymore because the music is making itself and you’re just along for the incredible ride.

I get so engrossed in my little I’m-special-you’re-not revenge fantasy I almost run a red light. As I slam on the brakes, I realize the only longing I saw in Scott’s eyes was the longing to get himself and his girlfriend as far the hell away from me as fast as he could.

“Screw it,” I say to no one. The light changes; I make a U-turn and head back toward the club.


Claudia Peirce grew up in Illinois and attended the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where she majored in English and began writing fiction. Since then she’s lived in New York and Atlanta, but has spent most of her adult life in Los Angeles, where she currently resides. She is currently pitching her first novel and happily working on her second.

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