Friday, April 20, 2018

 

Alex sat by herself on the hard wood seat and starred at nothing out the streetcar window.  The car rattled and clanked its way with awkward cadence towards Sacred Heart Academy, the last true bastion of good Catholic girls in New Orleans.  One more year until her parole, and she couldn’t wait.  Her mother refused any discussion about her going to a public school.  It just wasn’t done in New Orleans.  No way could they afford Newman.  That was reserved for the blue blood elite, the future kings and queens of Rex.  There was no way they would have admitted her, even if she had the money.  For God’s sake, her father delivered bread for a living, until that day last fall a loaded out crack-head ran a red light doing 50 at Claiborne and State.  The bastard T-boning her dad straight into St. Patrick Cemetery Number 2.  She sighed inwardly, and let her shoulders droop a degree.  I hope he didn’t see it coming.  But dead is dead no matter how you slice it.  No, it’s Scarred Heart for me.

The streetcar slowed as it pulled up to her stop, and several classmates rose, chattering away about nothing and everything.  A girl purposefully knocked into Alex with her book bag, then without a word of apology, keep walking amidst shallow laughter from a friend. 

“Watch out Catherine, the worm might slime you.”  More laughter.  Alex’s pulse spiked.  Not much, but she felt it.  She tilted her head and looked over the rim of her out of style-framed glasses.  Right … another Wednesday in friggin’ paradise.

She sighed, collected her tattered backpack and rose, not bothering to straighten her uniform skirt or oversized blouse with a small ketchup stain on the front.  She cared less if the pleated plaid vestige of a hopefully dying culture was rumpled, and followed the others down off the streetcar.  She crossed over St. Charles Avenue, instinctively dodging the traffic without really looking.  A bell tolled.  Others ran ahead into the building as the bell called the little sainted darlings to class, but Alex maintained her unperturbed pace.  Up ahead she saw Mil, her only friend in this penal institution, duck in the main door.  A second bell.  She wouldn’t see Mildred until lunch at the leper table where they sat by themselves.  But that was the time she appreciated her friend the most.  Nice to have someone watch your back in the lunchroom, that cauldron of teenage hormones and festering sub-cultures.  Alex recalled her first few days, flying through the uncharted battlefield laden with land mines.  It didn’t take long for classmates’ claws to come out.  The packs ran hard, proficiently culling out ill-equipped prey, those unworthy of their friendship. 

The third bell rang out rhythmically across the courtyard.  Crisp, with authority.  Alex looked at the bell tower and the hint of a smile washed across her face, but she pressed on.  Three more bells.  She had just enough time to make pre-calc and be seated before the final bell.  Besides, even if she was late, Mrs. Baxter would let her slide.  Baxter was the only teacher in the school she liked, and that seemed to like her.  Alex was acing the class.  Math had always been easy.

She entered the large classroom, and sat down at her desk as the final bell sounded.  “Good morning, girls,” said the middle-aged woman with a genuine smile.  A few students muttered a shallow response.  The corners of the teacher’s eyes crinkled, and her smile gently broadened.  Alex made eye contact with the teacher and gave a barely discernible nod of her head, then turned before a response and starred out the tall panel of windows running the length of the room, hoping today would be different.  

Damn!  She remembered it was Wednesday, and she had her Community Service after school.  To make matters worse she had not even started to work on the curriculum requirement of writing a reflection on the experience.  A pang of anxiety breezed over her.  Geez, there goes Saturday and going to the Quarter

As expected, the rest of the day was just typical.  After the last bell, she quickly went to her locker, packed up her books needed for her homework that night, and pushed in her earbuds.  With a few well-rehearsed commands on her reasonably intelligent phone, she was listening to Cristina Aguilera sing Beautiful with enough volume to drown out the surrounding noise.  She exhaled, and almost broke a smile.  She walked briskly out of the building, off the property down to Napoleon, turned right and headed toward the river.

Ms. Sallae lived on Annunciation Street, in an old raised shotgun house behind Tipitina’s.  The gentle old woman had to be in her eighties, maybe older.  Alex knocked on the worn down screen door and waited.  Before long, she heard the sound of feet shuffling on the wood floor.

“I’m comin’ Miss Alexandra.  Gimmi, just a second,” said a thin, crackling voice.  The lock on the door was thrown back, and the door swung open.  The frail woman smiled warmly at Alex.  “I knew it was you!   You’re the only one I see regular on Wednesdays.  You’ve got a good loud knock.  Come on in, child.  Come on in.”  The little lady stepped aside to make space for Alex.

“Thank you, Ms. Sallae,” said Alex as she took the weight of the door and stepped in behind the host.  The smell of fresh cornbread floated by her nose.  She looked forward to Ms. Sallae’s baking.  She made it whenever she came by, once every two weeks.   Alex could tell money was tight, and cornbread with jalapeños was a real treat.

The old woman pulled a small paper from her apron pocket, slipped on her glasses and still squinted to read her chicken scratch note.  “Let’s see here.  Oh, yeah,” said Ms. Sallae as she made eye contact with Alex.  “Child, if it’s not too much to ask, I have so things that really need to go up in the attic.  Do you think you could put them up for me?”

“So long as it’s not too heavy, I don’t see why not,” replied Alex, seeing a sigh of relief pass over Ms. Sallae’s countenance.  A single box of old dishes sat in the kitchen corner.  Alex tested the weight and picked it up without difficulty, then carried the box to the hallway below the attic stairs.  She pulled the attic stairs rope and opened the folding stairs down to the floor, and latched the stairs into place.  Ms. Sallae flipped on the light switch as Alex picked up the box.  She ascended one step at a time, and yet in no time was up on the attic landing.   One bulb lit the attic, and it took her a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to see into the recesses of the small space.  Only a portion of the floor was covered and suitable for storage.

“Where do you want it?” asked Alex casting her eyes in all directions.

“Anywhere will do I suppose.  I don’t even know what I have up there.  It’s been so long since I’ve been up there.  My Big Joe used to be the one trapsin’ up and down that contraption back in the day, and he’s been gone now 27 years.  Anywhere, baby.  Anywhere.  Come on down outta there, you’ll get filthy,” chided Ms. Sallae.

Off away in a corner appeared to be some plywood laying over the floor joists, with some spare room to put things.  She carefully picked her way over parallel floor joists to the spot and set the box down.  As she rose she noticed an old dusty guitar case.  “Hey Ms. Sallae?” called out Alex loudly.

“Yes, child?”

“There is an old guitar case up here,” said Alex.  Any guitar stored up here is surely trashed.  Probably all warped and twisted from the heat, humidity, and all.

“A what?  A guitar case?  I don’t know nothin’ about no guitar case.  Bring it down, let’s have a look,” said Ms. Sallae.

As Alex lifted the case, a cloud of dust settled to the attic floor.   She sneezed. The word Gibson could barely be seen through the remaining dust.  She carried it carefully down the steps, not wanting to get all nasty, setting it down respectfully on the floor.  “Bring that ol’ thing into the kitchen,” Ms. Sallae implored with quickening cadence.  “Let me git a rag and wipe that off.”  She wet a dishtowel and cleaned off the case, at least enough to open the lid.  Ms. Sallae turned to Alex.  “You open it, child.  You found it.”

Alex paused for a long second watching Ms. Sallae to make sure she wouldn’t change her mind.  With a growing smile on her face Alex unclasped the latches and opened the case.   The form of a guitar lay beneath a pinkish-red satin inner cover.  She took a breath, then uncovered the instrument.  She recoiled slightly, her eyes widening.  “Wow!”

“Oh, my,” said Ms. Sallae.

It was a Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, that appeared to be in perfect condition.  She had no idea how old it was, but could probably figure it out if she checked the serial number on the back of the head stock.  She cradled it in her hands and drew it out of the case.  The minor tarnishing of the hardware was barely noticeable, but when she flipped the guitar over a 6-inch zig-zag lightning bolt scar ran across the back of the instrument body.  Belt ware is common, but this scratch did not come from a belt.  Alex flipped the guitar back over.  “Man, my father would have loved to see this,” said Alex, with a smile that eroded to sadness as her inspection continued..

“Did your father play, Alexandra?”

“Yes ma’am.  He was teaching me to play … that is until he was killed.”  Alex thought of the last time that she and her father had played together, and something he said stuck with her.  Play with your heart.

“Oh child, I am so sorry.  I didn’t know,” said Ms. Sallae putting her hand over her mouth.

“It’s OK, Ms. Sallae.  Seems like a long time now.”  Alex looked down the length of the neck from the bridge down to the guitar head.  Remarkably, all of the frets were parallel for the length of the neck.  Incredibly, no warping.   She shook her head slowly as she resettled the guitar back into the case.  “What do you want me to do with it?  I can take it back up, but it really shouldn’t be up in that heat.”

“I want you to have it, or at least borrow it for as long as you want,” said Ms. Sallae.   Alex scoffed. “Really, what am I gonna do with an old guitar?  When you get tired of it, bring it back and I’ll see if one of my grandchildren might wanna play.  Right now, they’re too young and they’d just wreck it.  Boys.  Whatcha you gonna do?  No, you go on and take it.  Have fun with it,” said Ms. Sallae.  After a long pause, she continued, “It’s nice to see you smile, Alexandra.”

Alex looked up and realized she was smiling.  She couldn’t remember the last time she actually had something to smile about.   

“But it’s worth a good bit of money, even with that nasty scratch on the back,” said Alex.  “No, I can’t take it.”

“Yes you can, girl.”  Ms. Sallae’s face hardened almost imperceptibly.  “You must take it.”  Then the old woman smiled again.  “Really, child, take it home.  Bring it back anytime you want.  I’ll write a note to your folks and tell ‘em it’s only a loan.”

Alex must have thanked the old lady 20 times before she left the house with a hand written authorization from Ms. Sallae, the feather light guitar and a noticeable spring in her step.  Two blocks away, unable to restrain herself any longer, she pulled out her phone and called Mil.  Over excited squeals on both ends Alex quickly recounted the story to her friend.

“We just have to practice tonight, Mil.  I’m so pumped.  Besides, the Band of the Bands at Newman is only three weeks away.  Call Jeff and I’ll call Joey.  Let’s meet for 7 at Joey’s,” said Alex while squeezing the guitar case handle, still not believing she held it in her hand.  

“Girl, you’re too lucky,” said Mil.

“I know, right!”

Alex went straight home and told her mother.  At first, her mother objected and wanted her to return the guitar immediately.  Finally, after reading the note, and on the basis that it was a loaner, she backed off and let Alex keep the instrument.

 The Awakenings’ practices were usually loud, and always at Joey’s off Carrolton and Orleans Avenue.    Less gear to drag around and set up if you play at the drummer’s place.  His neighbors were pretty cool about the noise, at least until about 9 when they started to lob vocal objections over the beat up wood fence telling them to knock it off.  Alex was early.  Joey looked down his nose at her while chewing as he unlocked the garage side door.  He swallowed, then noticed the brown leather guitar case.  “What the hell is that?”

“Go finish your dinner.  I’ll tell you about it when the others get here.” 

“Cool,” said Joey brushing his shoulder length hair off his forehead.  He went back inside.

Alex opened the door and flicked on the lights.  Everything was in its place.  It took them the better part of two weeks to position the gear in the right spots for Mil to get the sound right.  Well, at least decent. She had a real talent for sound, and still this was awkward.  Joey and his drum kit back by the canvass covered boat.  The bass player, Jeff, and his mammoth 60 lb. amp, with a hula dancer bobble-head, stood off to Joey’s right, next to the washer and dryer.  Mil ended up with her keyboard facing Joey from about 10 feet, and me between Joey and Mil, all of us facing center at one other. 

She placed the case on the shabby couch, opened the latches and pulled the Gold Top out.  Shaking her head in continued disbelief, she set the guitar on the empty stand next to her road weary 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb.  Her mother insisted that Alex hold onto her father’s classic amp.   She flipped the ON button, but left the STANDBY in off.

Mil burst through the door with her cell phone slapped against her ear.  “Yeah, OK. Un huh … OK Mom!  I got it.  Pick up the little sea troll from Newman gym at 8:30 … ish.  Got to go Mom, Love you!”  Mil finished her call then put the device on silent.

“This old boy needs to warm up before clearing his throat,” said Alex to no one in particular looking at the scratches on the amp face.  She attached the guitar strap and plugged in.  After clipping the tuner onto the headstock, she flipped the STANDBY switch.  The amp hummed.  Alex would have sworn she heard a faint, almost familiar melody line coming from the amp.  Must be picking up a radio frequency some kind of way, like kids with braces sometime hear radio.

She adjusted the volume controls on the guitar to 1, selected the rhythm pickup and gently plucked the Low-E with her thumb.  She twisted the volume nob too quickly, escalating the sound of the E note until a deep, resonant wave passed over and through her.  She quickly muted the string with her palm and shuddered.  Goose bumps raised up on her forearm.

“Wow,” said Mil as she settled in behind her keyboard.  “What was that?”

“I don’t know, exactly …” offered Alex as she quickly tuned the remaining strings.  She had put a new set of strings on the guitar after her mother finally capitulated and let her keep the guitar.  She tugged on the strings with her fingers to get them to stretch out, then retuned each string.  She checked the bass setting on the amp.  “Ah, ha … the bass is set all the way on 6.  That must have been it.  Cool though, huh?”  Mil nodded.

Alex checked the two TONE dials and they appeared to be set properly.  That must have been it.

She played a chord and the room immediately filled with a presence, a sense of peace, yet a powerful peace, almost as if the sound was in harmony with the room.  She felt her father’s presence in the room.  Play with your heartPlay with your heart.  The more she played the sweeter the sound seemed to swell up from the guitar and amp.  She adjusted the settings on the guitar to see the various effects.

Joey threw open the door.  “Man, that sounds great all the way into the house.  Where the hell did you get it?” he asked. 

Jeff walked in before she could answer, so she waited for him to set his things down, then told the band what had happened.  Alex’s enthusiasm was contagious, and by the time she brought the band current, they were all pulling at the bit to play.  They kicked off with Elle King’s hit Ex’s and Oh’s.  Learning that song had been a project in its own right.  For a variety of morphing reasons, they could never really nail it.  The beat would get lost, the speed would stray, etc. etc. etc.  Today they went through it without a hitch, killing it.  Alex’s lead was crisp and yet sensuous.  She closed her eyes and thought of the song, the fingers of her left hand sweeping over the fretboard, dancing perfectly on each note.  When the song ended.  They all sat in prolonged silence with straight faces, then simultaneously erupted in laughter and smiles.  They played for almost two hours, landing their standard repertoire with grace, style and passion.  Alex never played so well.  Everything seemed easier, more relaxed, in control of her sound.  She experimented on progressive riffs that brought new dimension to old rock and roll standards.  Not that she would use them, but it was cool finding them, and somehow knowing she could find them again.

Mil looked at her watch.  “Shit! I was supposed to be at Newman gym to pick up my brother 20 minutes ago,” she blurted out as she threw her things into her backpack and bolted out the door.  “See y’all.  That was awesome!” she hollered as she ran down the driveway.  

Alex returned her attention to the Gold Top, and ran through a sweet riff that she heard somewhere, maybe long ago.  “Newman! Yeah, that reminds me,” she said coming back to the present.  “You guys free on Saturday the 17th next month?  That’s the Battle of the Bands at Newman.  Starts at 3 PM, but bands don’t learn their slot until the morning of.  $20 entry, winner takes home $200.  At least that’s how it worked last year.  You guys in?”

“Absolutely!” they said in chorus.

Alex confirmed Mil’s availability and they agreed to add another practice and meet twice a week.  Wednesdays evenings and Sunday afternoons.  Over the course of the next three weeks they perfected the three songs they selected for the contest.  After putting to bed the selected trio, they continued working on other songs, building up their repertoire both in terms of number, but also in their complexity.  As Alex’s playing continued to strengthen, their ability to pick up new material came faster and faster.  Her grasp of tone and timing rose to new heights of sophistication.  She grew from simply trying to cover a song just like the artist, to embracing the song with her own style, her own interpretation.  As her abilities matured quickly, so too did the others grow in her shadow.  Joey’s cadence became rock solid.  Previously having a tendency to mentally wander down countless paths, and to take the tempo and band with him.  Now, from start to finish he was right on beat.  Focused, almost driven.  Somewhere along the line he lost some of his sophomoric charm and acted more … professionally.  Yeah, that’s the right word.  Jeff began to take musical risk as well, stepping out more and more from his comfort boundaries.  Accepting the challenge of more difficult work, and while struggling at times, persevered until he had the song.  Mil was thrilled at the opportunity to work the board for the incredible sound coming from this rejuvenated talent. 

Ten days before the traditional October event, Jeff and Alex went over to Newman campus to register.  There were other kids already lined up in front of a folding table in the middle of their courtyard, where a male teacher and a student processed paperwork and handed out packets.  There were a limit number of slots, so it was a bit first come first serve, but they jumbled the time slots, selecting them randomly after all the entries were in.  Alex had already filed out the form online, and held the printout.  It asked for the names, dates of birth, addresses and the school name of all the band members.  It was required that all band members must currently attend a high school in either Orleans or Jefferson Parishes.  The contest organizers were known to validate these attestations, and in previous years, have on more than one occasion disqualified bands.   Ringers were unlikely.  In short order the two envoys stepped up to the desk, Alex pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose.

“Hi.  We’re here to sign up,” said Alex was her best mature voice.

The teacher looked over the form, then looked up at Jeff then Alex and asked, “Everybody still in school then?” 

“Yep, just like it says there.  Two from Jesuit and two from Sacred Heart,” said Jeff.  The teacher jotted some information longhand onto a sheet, then handed a packet of information and their registration number.   Number 14 out of 24 slots.  The winner, announced at the end of the contest won $200 in cash and a Friday night gig at The Spanish Moon, a new club on Frenchman Street, opening for another band.

The packet included poorly written instructions, but between Jeff and Alex, they were able to decipher the code.  The contest provided amps, a drum kit, mics and the PA.  Basically, bring your gear and plug in.  How you spend your 15 minutes on stage was up to you, but that included getting set up.  Bands were instructed to be stage-side in the quasi green room when the band playing before them walked on.  If all members of the band were not present, the contest organizers had the right to waive off their performance.  They would be running behind schedule as it was.

For the remainder of the week Alex’s stomach was in a knot, finding it almost impossible to concentrate on anything but the contest.  The only time she was able to put it out of her thoughts was when she played the Gold Top.  She was also able to find enough creative juice to work on her Community Service paper.  She wrote down thoughts of helping Ms. Sallae with household chores, and how nice she was to make hot cornbread, and how through this program, her appreciation of community and goodness was rekindled.  Blah, blah, blah.  She made no mention of the guitar.   She had gone over to Ms. Sallae’s twice more since finding the guitar, but these last visits were back to normal. 

Finally, the day arrived.  They had agreed not to practice the night before, but now she regretted that decision.  The all met at Joey’s house at 1 PM when the time slots were to be posted on the contest website.  Band 14 payed at 7:30 PM, one of the later slots.  They agreed they should wait until about 5 before heading over, so they killed time listening to CDs and drinking water.  Out of the shadows a bag of Fritos materialized.  They waited.  Watching the time pass slowly.

Alex’s phone said 4:30. “Screw it.  What y’all say we head over?  Sittin’ here is killin’ me.” 

“Sounds good to me,” said Mil.  They all bounded to their feet, grabbed their gear, threw it in the back of Jeff’s car and drove over to Newman.  Parking near the Jefferson Avenue campus was tight, so after an aggravating 20-minute search, they ended up parking about four blocks away.  The spot was a bit tainted, given that Jeff’s car just barely, nudging slightly into a drive, but one that clearly nobody used.  Jeff was cool with it, so the rest were as well.  They picked up their gear and hiked in.   They could hear music pounding out from the gymnasium.  Butterflies passed through Alex’s belly, and her palms began to sweat.  She tightened her grip on the case handle, took a deep breath, lowered her head a bit and kept walking with increased purpose.

They crossed the portals onto Newman campus and walked over to the gym through the double metal doors.  Only half the gym florescent lights were on giving it an eerie gray feel, but someone had rigged up theatre lighting for the raised stage.  Off to the side of stage right a series of privacy panels were pulled together jury rigging a green room.   The four judge panel sat side stage left out of direct fire of the amplifiers.  One after another, the bands would fire up with intense drums, crashing symbols and heavy metal power chords as someone screamed unintelligible lyrics.  Finally, the band before The Awakening walked on stage.  Alex and her krewe checked in with the clipboard toting organizer in the impromptu green room.  Alex took the Gold Top out of the case.  She exhaled and wiped her hands.  Taking a deep breath, she thumbed the Low E string and as she brought it into tune at 440hZ, something powerful resonated through her, moving from her core, out to her head and toes.  No one else heard it, or felt it.  She shook momentarily from the Hebbie-Jeebies.   She tried it again, nothing unusual, then finished checking the tuning.  She stood and looked out onto the stage, and the crowd.  Her guitar seemed to vibrate.  She discounted the thought, reasoning that it must be the shaky risers they had turned into a stage. 

The other band finished to a smattering of golf claps and a “way to go, honey!” from a proud mother.  Alex took a deep breath then strode out on stage with her guitar already strapped on.  She plugged into the Fender Reissue Twin Reverb and tested her volume with a simple riff.  The sound permeated the hall with emotional simplicity.  Sweet, yet complex.  Someone in the crowd shouted appreciation.  She tested the mic and was good to go.  She looked around.  Jeff was tangled in his chord, and his strap slipped off his shoulder.  His wheels were coming off.  Joey was fussing with the height of the thrown and the position of the hi-hat.  Mil kept checking cable connections from the keyboard.  She was not getting any sound.

Time was slipping and the crowd started to drift off or mumble objection to the delay.  Alex adjusted her volume up, then laid out a screeching two bar classic Led Zeppelin riff that caught everyone’s attention.  The bank members looked up at her.  “We got this,” said Alex with firmness in her eyes.  Mil finally switched on the power, Joey settled on the stool, and Jeff pulled it together.  Joey tapped out a four count with his sticks and Mil started them cleanly into Santana’s Black Magic Woman.  Jeff’s vocals were a little tight at first then relaxed.  Alex moved her body with the beat and got into a smooth groove, killing the signature leads and improvising on her own.  She was in control, taking sound and tone to wondrous new dimensions.  When she opened her eyes she realized the crowd had grown a lot during the song.  She smiled, then closed her eyes again, gripped the reins and rode the song in hard, tight and passionately.  Alex was out of breath when they hit the last note.  The crowd cheered loudly when they finished. 

Jeff stood momentarily frozen.  Alex smiled then stepped up to the mic.  “Thank you, thank you very much,” she said with a pitiful Elvis imitation.  She looked at her band mates who all smiled broadly.   She shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve always wanted to say that,” she said to the crowd, who laughed.

Joey pulled them back down to the stage with a 1-2-3 beat and they cranked into the Chili Peppers’ Dani California.  To the crowd’s delight, Jeff went crazy on stage ala Flea, while cleanly laying out bass riffs.  They covered it perfectly, almost too perfectly.   They had practiced this song a 100+ times so when they nailed it, it resonated with their soul.  Almost without stopping, they finished with Melissa Etheridge’s Angels Would Fall.  Alex’s lead vocals grew stronger as the song wove its tale, always holding perfect pitch.  A glowing sensation spread through her, the Gold Top seemed to tingle in her hands, as her fingertips danced over the fretboard not missing a note.  When they finished sweat poured from Alex’s brow.  She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand as the crowd broke into a chant for more. 

One of the teachers stepped up to the mic.  “The Awakening!” he cried out.  “Give it up!”  The crowd’s appreciation surged with shouts, clapping and whistles.  “OK, listen y’all,” he raised his hands in the air.  “We have a lot more music to get on stage and we are running behind, so thank you very much, The Awakening.”  Alex thrust a fist in the air, and the crowd noise surged yet again.  She walked briskly off stage, her body pumping adrenaline.

“What a rush!” said Joey high-fiving Jeff, then butting chests at the shoulder.

“Mil, you were fabulous!  Black Magic Woman rocked!” exclaimed Alex pushing her hair back off her forehead with a radiant smile.  “And Jeff,” she punched him in the shoulder, “bro where did you pull the Flea stuff from?  You must have been practicing at home.   Awesome, dude.  But let’s practice that shit first.  You blew me away.  Friggin’ awesome.”  On the other side of the stage a handsome, tall young man with a Fender telecaster guitar slung across his back smiled at Alex and gave her a thumbs up and respectful nod on his head.  She smiled back.

“Alex,” called out Mil from behind with a tap on the shoulder.  Alex turned around.  “We need to clear the green room.”  Alex nodded, then turned her gaze back across the stage.  Backstage right was empty.  He was gone.   They quickly gathered their gear and went back out among the masses, where a small group of people began gathering around the band, shaking hands and offering compliments.  The band on stage began grinding through a forgetful set.   They set their instruments off to the side against the gym wall.  Joey volunteer to stay behind and keep an eye on everything.  Mil went traipsing off to the sound booth to see what she could learn from Bob, the sound guy.  Jeff and Alex mingled in with the crowd, meeting countless musicians their age, and yet spent appropriate attention to the bands playing.  There was some phenomenal talent in the New Orleans area.  Sure, some of these bands were green, but there was a definite musical core.  Like maybe a kid who played tuba in junior high school now plays bass.  Or, a guitar player’s father may have played clarinet in a Dixieland jazz band in the quarter.  Like food, music is woven into the very fabric of New Orleans’ soul.

Finally, the last band finished 45 minutes late.  A group of three organizers and the manager of the Spanish Moon club would form the judges panel.  The two people who accepted the entrance application were on the panel, as was another guy who had to be a teacher.  The judges gathered in conclave on the side of the stage, and in short order came to a decision.  The student-judge stepped to the microphone.

“Alright, how’s everybody doing.  Let’s have a round of applause for all the bands who played here today, yeah,” he said clapping his hands.  A modest response from the crowd.  “Come on, give it up for yourselves.”  The response grew slightly.  “Alright, the winner of the contest, and the $200 AND the opening gig at Spanish Moon on Friday, November 11th is … The Awakening!”  The crowd exploded.

Alex jumped in the air, with fists raised.  Congratulations from the other musicians around them in the crowd erupted until they were called up on stage.  The kid handed Alex the envelop with cash, and then a second envelope with an unexecuted contract with Spanish Moon Enterprises, LLC.  Mil hugged Alex, and the boys jumped up against each other and bumped chests.  After a few minutes of basking in the sunshine of victory, they were politely reminded on the hour, expediting their departure.  The gym quickly emptied and The Awakening walked the four blocks to the car.  But, the car was not there.  Just an empty spot over the grown over drive.

“Shit, Jeff. Dude, your car got stolen!” said Joey in disbelief.

“Maybe it was towed,” said Alex looking at the house that was completely dark.  If anyone was home, they were playin’ possum.  Jeff looked up his license plate number off his phone and Alex called 911 to report the car not being there.  She was directed to call the impound lot and her call was put through.  Sure enough, they had the car.  $120 to get it out, with proof of insurance and the registration.  Fortunately, the later were both in the glove box.

Mil spoke up first.  “Look we got $200 cash.  Yeah Jeff parked there, but none of us objected so I figure we’re kind of all in this together.  But, that’s just me.”

“No, that sounds right, Mildred,” said Joey eliciting a smirk in return from Mil.

“Me to,” said Alex.  “Look, guys, the Neutral Ground Coffee House is just a couple of blocks from here.  Let’s take our stuff over there, Mil and I can hang there with the gear, Joey and Jeff can take a cab to the impound yard, get the car out from under Mayor Landrieu’s money tree.”

They agreed and walked over to the coffee house known for live acoustic music, so musicians walking in with instruments raised no eyebrows.  Joey explained to the manager what happened who was really cool about it, while Jeff called a cab from his cell phone.  In minutes the guys were winging their way downtown, while Mil and I sat down and ordered coffee.  I hate coffee, but it seemed like the thing to do.

The girls tried to sit still and listen to the performing jug band that rambled around through some delta somewhere east of musical oblivion.  Impossible, they were too wound up with adrenaline still feeding them energy.  They went outside to wait.  They sipped on their café au lait, and played with their stir sticks, going on about their show.

“The contract!” exclaimed Alex sitting up straight in her chair and reaching for her backpack.  She pulled the envelop out and began to read it.  Mil was texting someone.  Alex read the contract carefully, line by line.  It seemed to make sense, but clearly had a mom-n-pop feel about it, like Charlie wrote it himself instead of by some stodgy lawyer at the firm of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe.  Good for Charlie.  They’d get paid $120 to play a 50-minute gig, starting promptly at 8:45 on Friday, November 11th.  They had to be there, set up and ready to go one hour before they went on.  The club would be open to them at 6:30PM.  If they were late, it was all in the discretion of the club whether they went on or got paid.  They would be paid immediately after the show.  The agreement said they shared 50/50 the audio visual rights that might be recorded by either party during their performance.   One member could sign on behalf of the entire band.  Seemed alright.

“Joey just texted.  They got the car and are headed back …. and do we want to get something to eat?”, said Mil delivering the message.  “Geezum, Joey likes to eat!”  Alex smiled, then returned her attention to the document, re-reading it one more time, slowing when reaching the part on recording rights.  She made a mental note to ask Charlie to amend the contract to create a requirement that any party intending to record the performance must give the other party written notice at least 24 hours before they went on.

“Finally!” exclaimed Mil.  Jeff’s car came around the corner, with the radio turned up just a touch too loud for the neighborhood.  He pulled up next to the girls, and they put their gear in the trunk, and climbed in the backseat.  They spent about two hours at Bud’s Broiler by Delgado decompressing and watching Joey eat through his cut.  Or what was left of his cut.  After the impound fee of $137.50 and the cab fee of $12.00, that left $50.50 to split four ways.  Joey had no problem consuming his $12.62 and hit Mil up for a couple of bucks to carry the day, or tray.  Hey, he was hungry.  They went back to Joey’s, then made their separate ways home after a group hug.  When Alex finally laid down on her bed after telling her mother everything, she stared at the ceiling, eyes wide open, reliving those precious 15 minutes onstage.  It took her hours to fall asleep, finally she succumbed to a fitful sleep.

When she rose the next morning, the air seemed fresher, the sky clearer.   She sensed a natural buzz in the air.  It didn’t feel like a normal Sunday.  She checked her phone and saw she had two texts and one call from unknown New Orleans area numbers.  One looked vaguely familiar but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

The text read, “Wanted to give you my contact details in case you misplace the card.  504-347-0922 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Great show last night, congrats.  Charlie.”

She listened to the recorded message.  “Alexandra, this is Katheryn with Offbeat Magazine.  One of our people was at the Newman Battle of the Bands and caught your show.   He convinced our editor that we should interview you and the band.  Please call me back tomorrow, Monday at 504-382-4959.  Again, Katheryn, Offbeat,” said the upbeat voice.  “Thanks, have a great day!”

Alex listened to it again just to be sure.  Yep.  She called Mil and the guys and they agreed that Alex should get back with the Offbeat lady.   Mil reminded her that this reporter was the one who did that really cool exposé on the New Orleans East biker gang in Gambit last year.  Now, apparently an Offbeat staff reporter, they weren’t sending a cub reporter.

Monday morning, just before 11 AM, Alex called Charlie, and successfully talked through the change she wanted regarding notice of intent to record.  She was waiting for the revised contract to hit her email inbox when she called the Offbeat number.  The main switchboard put her through to the reporter. 

“Katheryn,” said the reporter answering the phone.

“Yeah, Katheryn, this is Alex with the band, The Awakening.  I got your message and was returning your call.”

“Oh, yeah, Alex.  Hey, thanks for getting back with me so quickly.  I heard you guys were great Saturday night.  Brought the house down en route to winning the contest.  Congratulations,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

“Thanks.  Yeah, it was pretty awesome,” replied Alex getting excited all over again.

“I’d like to meet you and the band, and maybe do a piece on you in Offbeat.  Think we could set something up this week?”

“We practice on Wednesday evenings.  Maybe you could meet us this week say at 8:30, watch us practice a bit, then we can talk.  I can give you the address.”

The reporter jotted down the address.  “Got it.  Sounds perfect, Alex.  I understand you have a fabulous Les Paul guitar.  I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

It was arranged, the band was brought up to speed and all looked forward to the interview with excitement.  That Wednesday, once Joey finished eating, they all signed the contract.  Mil and Alex would take it down to the club tomorrow.  They started playing around with some different Clapton tunes, trying to find one that fit their soaring temperament.

They were playing Cocaine when an attractive woman in her late twenties poked her head through the side door.  Mil saw the reporter first, smiled and waved her to come in and sit on the couch.   The band finished the last 12 bars of the song cleanly. 

“Hey, Katheryn, I’m Alex.  This is Mil, Jeff and Joey,” said Alex shaking hands, then pointing everyone out to their guest.  Joey hit his crash cymbal for effect.  Everyone was smiles. 

“Could you guys maybe play something for me?  If it’s OK?  I’d like to see you guys in action,” said the reporter as she tossed her huge leather purse on the couch and pulled out her phone.  “Is it OK if I record our session here?”

Alex looked at the guys, and Jeff said, “Yeah, I guess so.”

“One more time from the chorus,” said Alex then Joey kicked them back into Cocaine.  Alex closed her eyes and emotionally leaned into the song, playing each note with soul and purpose.   When they finished, they set down guitars, and switched off amps and gathered around the couch where Katheryn asked a bunch of questions she had taken the time to write down. 

“That was awesome. Work in progress clearly, but solid.  Very cool sound.  Smooth, rich.  How long have you guys been playing instruments?” asked the reporter looking among the four members.

“I’ve been banging on stuff my whole life.  My mother tells me I was born with a drum stick,” said Joey with a wave of his hand.

“Me, about 2 years,” said Jeff.  “But, I played a clarinet in junior high before.”  Katheryn made eye contact with each person as they spoke.  Alex wondered if she was sizing them up as well as listening to what they said.

“My mother insisted I take piano lessons when I was 6,” said Mil.  “And, I took lessons until last year when we formed the band.  Mom thought it was a waste of time to teach me Mozart when I wanted to figure out what locals like Josh Paxton, John Cleary and John Gros were doing.  Man, those cats can play.”

“And what about you, Alex?” Katheryn smiled through the question.  “Oh, can I see that Gold Top I’ve heard a lot about it.  Someone told me it almost glowed when you were on stage.”

Alex handed her the guitar.  Alex loved how it sparkled.  Light danced off the nickel hardware.  Katheryn smiled deeply, mesmerized by its beauty, its perfection, and looked into the lustrous paint. Suddenly, the reporter jolted then shook slightly, her eyes recoiling and her brow quickly furrowing.  She handed the guitar back to Alex.  “What the hell was that?” asked reporter.

“What was what?” replied Joey.  Jeff and Mil both looked up from their gear to see what they were talking about.

Katheryn looked over at Alex who, simply raised her shoulders with palms raised in front of her.   Katheryn sat up straight, and turned her attention to Joey.  “So drummer boy, tell me.” Joey smiled. “When did you guys first realize you were starting to gel?”

“Well, we were sounding OK, not great but OK, until Alex there found that old guitar,” said Joey as he banged his sticks on the soft chair.  “I guess it got her really pumped about playing, and it was kinda contagious.  Then we all found our sound.  Pretty cool, huh?”

Jeff came over and sat down.  “Yeah, that’s about right.”  Mil concurred as well.  Katheryn returned her focus to Alex.

“Winning the contest must have been a real rush.  How long did it take you guys to calm down after the show?” she asked directing her question to Alex.

“I took us about an hour to get Jeff’s car out of impound.  He got towed.  Can you believe it?” replied Alex.  Jeff and Joey tagged teamed and gave her the details of their untimely nocturnal adventure.

“Is it alright if I take a group photo for the article if I can get it published?” asked Katheryn.

All but Alex were keen to take the photo.  Alex thought for a moment, then said, “We’d like the rights to the photo, but will give you a license to use it for the article.”  Her bandmates looked at her with gapping mouths.

“Where’d you learn all that stuff, Alex?” asked Mil.

“It’s amazing what you can get on the internet these days,” said Alex with a smile.  “I hope that’s not a problem Katheryn.  If it is we can talk about it.  First things first, go ahead and take the photo.”  

Katheryn stood back a few steps as The Awakening gathered on the couch for a photo, with Alex holding the Gold Top.  The reporter brushed hair off her forehead, then took three photos.  She stopped the recording, then tossed her things into the depths of her bag.  “I’ll let you know if and when a story might run, and I have marked my calendar for your gig at the Spanish Moon on November 11.”   She offered her goodbyes and left.  Alex stood there, watching the closed door for several long seconds.  Something just happened, but I don’t know what.  They broke for the night and went their separate ways.

The next morning as Alex walked up to the school gate, she saw Katheryn scoping out the girls filtering.  They made eye contact, Katheryn raised her hand and waived.  She was not smiling.

“Good morning, Katheryn.  This is unexpected,” said Alex as the second bell rang.

“Sorry.  I had to see you.  Remember last night when I took the band picture?” asked the reporter.  Katheryn handed Alex her phone.  There was no guitar in the photo taken of the band last night.  “Hmmm.  I must have been mistaken.”  She checked closely to ensure it was taken last night.  Yep, she had worn that yellow t-shirt.  “I guess I didn’t.”

 “Alex, this is going to sound crazy, but I think your guitar, is … I don’t know, possessed or something,” blurted Katheryn.

“Whoa, lady!  Did you have three too many cups of coffee this morning?”

“I know, I know,” replied Katheryn quickly.  “How about this afternoon we go talk with the lady who lent it to you?”

Alex started mentally grinding through the reality of what Katheryn was suggesting, and it did explain a few oddities.  No, she’s nippin’ on the cooking sherry.  “OK, but I don’t even know if she’ll be home.”

“Let’s try,” said the reported with a smile. 

They got in Katheryn’s late model Honda Accord and drove the short distance to Ms. Sallae’s in silence.  The radio was turned to her station, and they listened to some old jazz number that Alex did not recognize.  She was not listening anyhow, and her mind kept churning over Katheryn’s allegation.  They parked three houses down, got out and walked up to the shabby structure.  Alex knocked on the screen door.  She knocked a second time.  Still nothing.  “Ms. Sallae, it’s me, Alex.”  The old lady finally opened the door wearing a brilliantly patterned shawl over a white linen dress.  With terse lips she eyed up Alex for a long second, then passed a lingering look upon Katheryn.  The heavy scent of burning incense, pulled out by the opening door drifted down to Alex.  It smells … what is that smell?  Evil.  She thought she heard soft, muffled chanting to an unfamiliar rhythm, but then it stopped.  She shuddered for a split second.  “Ms. Sallae, this is Katheryn, a reporter with Offbeat.  She’s doing a piece on our band and is interested in learning more about the Gold Top guitar we found in your attic.  I told her you didn’t know anything about it, but she was determined to speak with you.  Can we come in?” asked Alex as she started walking up the step. 

The old woman never took her scrutinizing eyes of Katheryn.  “No!  You may not,” said the old woman nearly snarling.  Alex thought she heard faint voices and feet shuffling across the old hard pine floor. 

From the shadows of the door a man spoke out.  “Gold Top?  What’s this about a Gold Top?” said the man stepping into the light with escalating volume.  The grey haired man in dingy white linen limped to the door with eyes wide open.  “Y’all better start talkin’.  What Gold Top?” he said emphatically eyes burning down on Alex.

Alex recoiled down a step then blurted out, “Me and Ms. Sallae found an old Les Paul in the attic, and …”

“Enough child.  Hold your tongue,” interjected Ms. Sallae.  “We don’t need to be getting’ into all that right now,” she said with softening tones and bringing a smile to her face as she turned to Katheryn.

The man’s mouth slackened as he turned his attention to Ms. Sallae.  “Why’d you give that girl Big Joe’s guitar?  She’s just a child.”

“You shut your mouth,” snarled Ms. Sallae back at the man, shifting her upper body weight slightly towards the man, fists clinched.  The old man cowered and melted back into the shadows.  The old woman spun to face Alex.  “I don’t want you comin’ round here no more.  I’m callin’ the school to tell them I don’t need ya.  Got a grand-niece able to do that now.  I’ll not be nasty about it.  Just don’t come back.  Ya hear me?  Now, both of y’all get off my property.”   She slammed the door closed.

Alex and Katheryn walked away from the property.  Alex took one last look behind her and saw the curtains gently fall back into place.  “What the hell just happened?” asked Alex.

“Keep moving, Alex.  Let’s get away from here first,” said Katheryn who walked quickly to the car, twice looking over her shoulder with a stern countenance.  She remotely unlocked the car, they both got in, belted up while Katheryn fired up the car, dropped it in gear, pulled out with a trace of gravel thrown behind.

“OK …. What was all that?” asked Alex again rubbing her spiky hair.

Katheryn shook her head.  “I don’t know … exactly.”

“I’m just glad I don’t have to go back.  You think she’ll tell the school I was punk or something?”

“Not quite sure what that woman is capable of, but I would take the initiative tomorrow, and go tell the school the good news that the dear woman’s grand-niece is there to help her now, and might they please give you another project to complete the course objective,” said Katheryn.

“Best defense is a good offense, kind of thing,” said Alex.

“Did you smell the incense?” asked Katheryn.

“Yes!”

“And the other voices?” asked the reporter.  Alex nodded.  “How many do you think were in there?”

Alex shook her head, then ran her fingers through her hair.  “I don’t know.  Maybe two or three … I don’t know.  The whole damn thing was freaky.” 

“I wonder …”, said Katheryn pausing in thought cocking her head.  “What did you make of the old guy in white linen?”

“So ….?” Responded Alex frowning.

“Look, give me a few days to dig around,” said Katheryn.  “I’m gonna try to find out who Big Joe was,” said Katheryn as they pulled up to the light at Napoleon and St. Charles that just changed from yellow to red.  She turned and faced Alex. “This is probably much to do about nothing.  But, it’s definitely worth following up on.”

Alex grabbed her backpack to get out of the car, then said “I think he died some 25, 28 years ago.  Ms. Sallae mentioned that once.  Somethin’ like that.”  She stepped out of the car, just as the light turned green.

“I’ll be in touch,” said the reporter.  “Keep practicing, y’all are going to do great.”  She turned the corner onto St. Charles and sped off towards downtown.  Alex hopped on the next streetcar, and replayed those few minutes over and over in her head.  She mentioned it to no one.  

As Alex plowed her way through the coming days, with several girls coming up to her before or after a class, complimenting her on her performance and winning the Battle of the Bands.  Others who passed her in the halls smiled or said hi.  During lunch one day, Alex and Mil sat at their normal spot.  Everything seemed normal until a couple of in-girls came over.  “Is it OK if Lisa and I sit here,” said a pretty girl with perfect teeth and gorgeous hair nodding to empty chairs. 

“Um, sure … I guess,” said Mil who looked over to Alex, then making a funny face.

Alex smiled back.  Yeah, I know Mil … a week ago these witches would not have given us the time of day.

“I’m Alex and this is Mil.”  Alex offered a half-baked smile.

“Oh, we know who you are,” said the second girl excitedly.  “We were at the Battle of the Bands.  Y’all were awesome.”  The newcomers rambled on about the contest, boys, music, boys and then boys again.  Alex and Mil finished their lunches as fast as they could chew, offered appropriate valedictions then left to get ready for the afternoon clash in the trenches.

After the last bell she went to find the teacher handling her community service project.  “Hey, Ms. Conrad,” said Alex testing the waters, looking for a reaction be it positive or negative.

“Oh, Alex.  Perfect timing.  I just had a call from that sweet old lady, Ms. Sallae.  She spoke so highly of you and explained that her grand-niece was taking over your duties.  She seemed quite smitten with you, dear,” said the teacher smiling.

“Thanks, Ms. Conrad,” said Alex.  “Maybe I can do something else to fill in the missing time of the requirement?”

“I don’t think you need to worry about these last few weeks in the semester.  Just write up your experience with Ms. Sallae,” replied the teacher.  Alex thanked her and walked off to her next class.

Alex jumped on a street car heading to the Quarter.  She walked down Royal Street through the Quarter listening to the several buskers working the street with guitars, clarinets, horns … you name it.  She kept walking, over Esplanade to Frenchmen Street and The Spanish Moon.  She squeezed her grip on the shoulder strap of the bag holding the fully executed contract.  She got there just before 6PM.  The club was locked up tight.  She noticed a music calendar posted on the board next to the front door.  She looked up November 11, and saw that they would open for Walter “Wolfman” Washington.  Alex pulled out Charlie’s card and phoned him.

“Charlie, this is Alex. I’ve got the signed contract.  I’m out front.  Can I come in?”

“Hey, this is a pleasant surprise,” said Charlie.  “Sure, baby I’ll be right down.”

Alex looked down the street.  Club after club lined both sides of the street for several blocks.  It looked different in the day.  The waning sun light exposed signs of the unyielding decay in the old buildings.   Under cover of night, these signs of urban blight, darkness masked the true condition of the buildings.  Alex heard a dead bolt being thrown, and Charlie opened the door.  Alex stepped in and Charlie closed the door behind them and threw the deadbolt.  Only the bar was lit, giving the club an awkward appearance.  Coupled with the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke, in sum gave it an uncomfortable vibe.

Alex walked over to the bar and tossed her backpack down on the old, deeply worn mahogany antique.  “We’ve all signed the duplicate originals, so it just needs your signature,” said Alex as she pulled the documents out from her backpack and handed them to the club owner. 

“Hey, you thirsty?  How about a beer … or a coke?” asked the club owner.

“A beer?” she asked with a probing gaze.  “No thanks, water would be perfect, thanks.”

“No problem.”  The owner went behind the bar, opened a cooler and pulled out a water and a beer.  He handed her the water, then twisted off the bottle top off the beer and tossed it towards the trash barrel missing badly.  They sat down, Charlie looked over the documents quickly, signed his name to both and handed one back to Alex.  “There … it’s official.”  He raised his bottle to toast, she touched plastic to glass.

She downed the bottle of water and packed their contract copy back into her backpack.  “Hey, don’t run off.  I thought you might tell me what your set list is going to be.”  He smiled and put his hand gently on her forearm.  His cheap cologne mixed with rank body odor permeated her senses.

She pulled back quickly clutching her backpack against her chest.  “Look, this is making me really uncomfortable, so, I’m gonna leave.  We’ll see you on the 11th.”  She walked to the door, threw back the deadbolt and opened the door.  Before leaving, she turned and said, “Thanks for the gig.”  After hearing the door close behind her, in a muffled voice said, “Creeper.”    

Over the next several weeks the band practiced with passion, building their repertoire, trying different songs, learning some, discarding others.  They spent considerable time agreeing on the set list.  It was critical that the first number was tight and set the right tone.  The finishing sequence would in large part also define their show.  The more they practiced, the more they wanted to practice.  They matured as musicians, growing into a tight, crisp sound, covering most of their songs, but also tossed in a couple awesome originals that Mil and Jeff put together.

The weeks passed and the night of the gig approached.  Every couple of weeks she would get a text from Katheryn, always the same.  Still working on it.  The singular events of late began to fade in her estimation of priority.  It became music, music and music.  At Mil’s persistent urging, Alex got a short, spikey haircut.   Mil was there to make sure the hairstylist got it right.  Alex bought new clothes that were tighter fitting, exposing curves of a healthy figure that had been hiding.  Each band member had posted flyers around the uptown shops advertising their gig before.  Every time Alex saw a poster that one of her bandmates had posted, a smile crossed her face.  They had to come up with a better photo. 

The day of the gig Alex woke with a start, 20 minutes before her alarm clock went off.  She jumped out of bed to begin her day.  Every minute of the day seemed to drag on.  A minute seemed like 20, an hour felt like a day.  From the time she got on the streetcar for school, her stomach churned and her hands would not stop sweating.  But time did march on, and after school she went home and crashed on her bed.  Regardless of the excitement and tension, she fell asleep.  Thirty minutes later her phone’s alarm clock app rang and she got up.  She showered, then put on her carefully selected outfit.  A tight black t-shirt, her oldest blue jeans replete with tears at both knees, and red low-top Converse shoes.  She put her makeup on just like Mil taught her, or at least she thought so.  When she stepped back and looked in the mirror, she looked like a muso.  She checked her watch.  Jeff would be by in 10 minutes.  Alex went to say goodbye to her mother.

“Jeff will be here any minute, Mom.  I’ll be late, but home before midnight. If something changes, I’ll text you.”  Alex kissed her mom on the cheek.

“Break a leg, Alexandra,” said the mother without looking up from her People magazine.

Jeff picked her up on time, and they went to Joey’s to load up the guitars, keyboard, amps and drum kit in a van borrowed from one of Jeff’s friends.  Everything had been broken down then staged in the garage, so loading only took a few minutes.  The two vehicle caravan headed down to Frenchman Street, working their way through the last effects of rush-hour.  They pulled up in front of the Spanish Moon at 6:31, quickly shuttling in all the gear through the side door, then the guys went to park the cars.  The unmistakable smell of stake beer and cigarette smoke permeated the entire structure, and all the house lights were on.  They quickly set up with Alex in front, Joey directly behind her, Jeff stage left of her and Mil stage right.  The sound guy miked their amps and it took them a while to finally get the sound balanced out.  Playing through the sound check helped settle Alex’s nerves.  What helped more was for the house lights to go down, then the stage lights to kick on, almost blinding them at first.  The lights provided a shield of anonymity as Alex could only see clearly about 30 feet into the crowd.  She only saw shapes moving around in the back of the club. 

They were ready to go 30 minutes before they were to go on.  The band was killing time in the Green Room next to the stage when Katheryn walked through the door.  Alex froze.  “Hey guys,” greeted Katheryn shaking hands with the others before walking over to Alex.  “Just wanted to wish y’all luck.  Can I do an interview when you finish.  My boss thinks there is a story, so this would really give my story some color.”  Everyone but Alex replied in unison, “Sure!”

“Can I speak with you for a second?” asked Alex.    Katheryn nodded and followed Alex out of the Green Room and then outside.  “I haven’t heard from you in weeks and now you show up 30 minutes before I go on.  Did you find out anything?”

“Yes,” replied Katheryn clearing her throat.  “But, it could take a while to go through it and right now I suspect you’d prefer keeping your ears wrapped around your set.”

“OK, but just tell me.  Did you figure out who Big Joe was?”

“Yes.  He played in blues band in the ‘50s.  Was knifed to death on Tchoupitoulas, two buildings down from Tipitina’s.  The crime was never solved.  There’s more, but it can wait.”

Alex restrained herself from asking more questions, but caught herself in time, nodded and said,” OK, until after the show then.  Thanks.”   She went back inside to be with her bandmates.   Over the house PA’s music, they could hear people starting to fill the club.  The club had advertised the opening act as under 21, trying to hype the younger generation so they needed to carefully check IDs and issue wrist bands to the under aged kids. 

Alex and Jeff tuned their guitars, again, then yet again five minutes later.  Joey was beating out a rhythm on a wood chair, in a zone with his sticks.  Mil was off somewhere, probably talking with the sound guy.  At 8:40, with her heart pounding somewhere up in her throat, they walked on stage.  There were some 40 people out on the floor, most of them kids, some whom Alex recognized, others who looked familiar. 

The club owner bounded up the steps onto the stage, turned to Alex and asked, “Y’all ready?”  She looked around and nodded.  He stepped up to a mic and said, “OK, ladies and gentlemen, we have Wolfman Washington coming on in a bit, but right now, it is with great pleasure that I introduce to you, a band with incredible potential as proven by their victory in the recent Newman High Battle of the Bands.  I know you’re gonna enjoy this.  The Awakening!”  The modest crowd clapped half-heartedly.  Somewhere in their midst a couple of kids called out encouragement.  Alex took a deep breath.  Play from the heart. She drove the guitar into the clean, yet funky rhythm of Fire on the Bayou causing the crowd to erupt in a robust cheer.  The Gold Top seemed to buzz in her hands in response to the accolades.  Her fingers were loose and warm, moving effortlessly over the fretboard.  The band captured the groove perfectly on time, and they took off like a rocket.  Tight, punchy, they played as one capturing the soul of the song.  One song followed after another, with their selections demonstrating musical dexterity, superb talent and poise.  Alex’s vocals were powerful yet melodic, gaining confidence with each passing measure.  The swelling crowd moved in sync with the music and offered their acknowledgement of a favorite classic song as they played the first couple of bars or a signature lick.  The loud cheers and whistles at the end of the song was strong testament to the way the music touched their souls. The band fed the crowd who reciprocated in ever increasing measure, slowly but surely ratcheting up the collective emotion in the room.  Alex’s heart pounded in perfect cadence against her chest.

“Thanks y’all,” said Alex with sweat pouring down her face.  She grabbed a towel off her amp, wiped her face and took a long pull of water.  Incredibly, they were down to their last song.  She glanced at the big clock stage left, and smiled.  Regardless of how excited they all were, Joey had kept them on pace, not allowing them to pick up the pace from nervousness and adrenaline.

“We’ve got time for one more.  Y’all have been incredible.  I can’t tell ya how awesome this has been for us,” said Alex into the mic.  Joey hit the crash cymbal.  Alex spun around to look at the drummer and laughed, then turned back to the crowd.  “This one is for my dad, thanks again.”   Play from the heart.   Joey’s rhythmic staccato pulled them cleanly into Angels Would Fall.  Once again, the band drew energy from the cadence and melody, nurturing emotion from the song and crowd, finally climaxing with power and passion. 

After the last chord the crowd cheered then broke into a chant.  Alex gave Joey a fist pump and Jeff a hi-five.  She switched off her amp set the guitar down and began to break down.  Wolfman Washington’s two roadies hustled on stage as the house sound system began playing Little Feat’s Spanish Moon.

“Girl, that was un-friggin’ believable,” said the middle aged roadie walking up to her.  His faded Led Zeppelin t-shirt and pony tail behind thinning hair.  He shook her hand.  “Here, let us break you down.  We’ll just set the stuff in the green room for you.  Go mingle with your fans,” he said with a smile and jerking his head in the direction of the crowd.  Alex looked out at the sea of smiling faces.

Joey called over to Alex as he took the wing nuts off his cymbals, “Yeah, Alex, go mix it up … we got this.”  Mil smiled and nodded in agreement as she pulled the keyboard off the stand.  Jeff was talking and laughing with Charlie the owner as the other roadie lifted Jeff’s amp and carried it off to the Green Room.

Alex went out into the crowd as was immediately swarmed with well-wishers.  Countless claps on the back, handshakes and compliments blanketed her emotions.  She lost count how many time she said thank you.  She worked her way through the bar talking with everyone who approached her.  Suddenly, she became light-headed, and her ears still rang from the loud music.  She just wanted to get away and be alone for a minute.  She walked outside, and was rewarded with a sobering blast of clean, cold air.  She took a deep breath and exhaled.  Damn, that was fun!  A brightness filled her eyes as she smiled.  Wish you were here, Dad.

From behind her, a voice spoke out.  “Alex …”  The music phenom turned to see Katheryn walking up to her.  “That was incredible, Alex.  Y’all really put on a show.”  The reporter kissed Alex on the cheek.

“Thanks.  That was one heck of a rush,” replied Alex still absorbing the experience.  “So, you were going to tell me the rest of what you found out,” said Alex shifting slowly from side to side as she focused her attention on Katheryn.

“Turns out Big Joe was with a band called the Creole Gladiators.  They had a local hit record in 1961 that made them famous in New Orleans.  But it didn’t last.  Seems like they were a one-hit wonder.  From that old record, I was able to run down two of the old members.  The first one cussed me out good on his front steps and offered some vulgar thoughts on what he’s like to do with me.  I got out of there as quickly as I could.  The second one was blind and bedridden at home in the Lower Ninth Ward, where his daughter looks after him.  At first he was skeptical, until I told him all I wanted to know was about Big Joe.”

“OK, what did he tell you,” pressed Alex.

“Whether this is true or not, I’ll probably never be able to tell …”

“Come on, Katheryn.  You’re killin’ me here,” urged Alex.

“Seems everything started to go their way, and fast, when Big Joe got his hands on the Gold Top,” said Katheryn looking over her shoulder.  “He started playing the Gold Top, and almost immediately their sound came together, then the record deal seemed to drop out of nowhere.  In no time they were making crazy good money, living life in a stardom spotlight.”

“So, what’s the matter with that?” asked Alex.

“Well, according to this blind old man, things happened, bad things, and they got worse as they rose is stature.  I checked the old newspapers up there, and confirmed that right after the record came out, the bass player’s wife ran off with another man and moved back to the Mississippi sticks.  The bass player borrowed a car and drove out to get his woman back.  Words turned into violence, ending with the bass player stabbing the other man to death.  He was arrested, tried and convicted of murder, sat on death row for 11 years then was finally sent to the gas chamber.  I drove up there and found the wife.  When I mentioned the band, she got defensive.  When I mentioned Big Joe and the Gold Top, she got frightened and ducked into the house.  Her grandson, who stood about 6’6” stepped out on the porch and told me to leave.”

Alex just stared at Katheryn with an unfocused gaze.  Her chest tingled, her breathing short and restricted.  “So, what you are ….”

“There you are!” exclaimed Charlie as he walked over to the women.  “I’ve been lookin’ all over for you.  That was awesome, really awesome.  I want y’all to play again tomorrow, one hour, $400.  OK?” he pleaded.

Alex blew air from her lungs, “Ah, yeah I guess so?”  Her bandmates walked over at a brisk pace.  “You guys hear that?  Charlie wants us to open again tomorrow for $400.”

“That’s $100 each!  Yeah, I’m in,” said Joey.

“Yeah, me too,” joined Jeff.  Mil nodded her head with a smile.

“OK, Charlie, we’ll be here.”  All of the others save Katheryn turned a headed back into the club.  Alex paused for a minute, then turned back to Katheryn.  “Anything else?”

“Just one thing,” replied Katheryn.  “In both murders, Big Joe and the lover the bass player killed, died by knives.”

“Yeah?” implored Alex.

“In both cases the knife wounds left almost identical wounds.  A six-inch zig-zag … just like that scar on the back of the Gold Top,” said Katheryn in measured tones.

“No way!!  I’m not buying it,” cried Alex waiving off the reported.  “That’s BS.”

“Here, look at this,” said the reported digging into her messenger bag.  She pulled out a paper and handed it to Alex.  “This is a copy of the hand written police report on Big Joe’s death.  I dug it up from the old microfiche.”

Alex looked at the document, and sure enough, the coroner’s report showed a photo of the killing would.  It looked identical to the scar on the Gold Top.

“And this other one, I couldn’t get a police report, but from the court transcripts I the testimony of the responding officer and the coroner both said the same thing.  How curious the wound was, being a 6 inch zig-zag.  They never found the murder weapon, but it had to have been a large sharp blade.” 

Alex ran her fingers through her hair, her shoulders sagged.  “I gotta think.  I’ll talk with you later.”  She shook her head and walked with head slightly down back into the club.  The band stayed for Wolfman’s first set.  Alex sat alone in the green room, churning things over in her head till it spun. 

Mil entered.  “Hey, Alex … just heard that Quint Davis is going to come tomorrow to check us out.  Seems someone sent him a video.  Girl, there might be an early spot for us at Jazz Fest!” she almost screamed with excitement.  Alex looked up with a frozen expression.  “Hey, you OK?” asked Mil.

“Just a lot to absorb in one night.  Y’all about ready to cut out?” asked Alex.

“Yep.  Joey’s gonna pull the van around so we can load up.  Jeff is off smokin’ weed with some hot Tulane coed.” 

They heard Joey honk the horn.  Jeff materialized from somewhere and the band loaded up their gear.  Alex handed each of band their $30 cut, they got in the two vehicles and went back to Joey’s to unload.  It was all a daze for Alex even after she got home, jumped in the shower and crashed on her bed. Was there something about this guitar?  Something evil?  She could not shed the vision of Ms. Sallae snarling at her.  The rapid rise to fame for Big Joe and their band, then the crash and burn.  Somewhere from the recesses of her consciousness, she heard her father’s voice.  Play from the heart.  Repeating the mantra over and over, she finally drifted off to a fitful sleep.

She woke around 11 AM, much later than normal, feeling exhausted.  She had to drag herself out of bed, glanced out the window to see leaden skies and a distant rumble of thunder.  Splashing water on her face seemed to help a bit, then she looked in the mirror.  Did all that really happen yesterday?  Or perhaps, it was just a bad dream.  Her phone rang.  She recognized Katheryn’s number.

“Yeah, Katheryn,” said Alex scratching her head.

“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” said the reporter.  “But, we need to talk.  I’ll swing by in 10 minutes.  We can go for coffee.” 

Katheryn hung up just as Alex said, “OK … but …”.

Less than 10 minutes later, Alex quickly dressed and waited in the foyer.  Through the sheers of the foyer side-panels, she saw her car pull up.  She walked out of the house and got in the passenger seat.  “OK, ace reporter.  What’s so damn important?”

“Charlie was stabbed to death early this morning,” said the reporter.  Alex did a double take.  “The police are calling it a robbery-homicide as someone emptied the safe, but I want to know more about his injuries.  A colleague of mine is down at police headquarters now trying to find out more.”  The reporter sat for a long time looking at Alex before saying.  “Alex, I think you need to take that guitar back to the old witch.  I didn’t tell you yesterday, kinda forgot, but I went back to that house several times, and on two occasions there was a gathering of between 10 and 15 people all dressed in white linen.  Some wore street clothes over their white garments, but they were all in white.  Its voodoo.  Not sure I want to get any closer.”

Alex’s hands began to shake, sweat poured from her body, and her stomach was in knots.  “OK, after tonight’s show,” replied Alex.

“No Alex.  Just should never touch that guitar again.  Alex broke down into uncontrollable tears and cried as Katheryn drove in the direction of the coffee shop.  Alex was still crying when they pulled up and parked.  “I’ll go get us a couple of coffees.  You hang out here.”  The reporter turned off the engine, pulled out the keys, got out of the car, and walked into the coffee shop.

Alex composed herself, wiped the tears from her eyes and exhaled deeply.  She was right of course.  I should have known something was not right when I first started playing the Gold Top.  I’m good, but not that good.  “Oh my God.  I’ve got a show tonight, or do I?” she said out loud to herself.  Katheryn returned.

“Do you think we’re still on tonight?” asked Alex.

“Yeah, I checked with the club already.  The senior bartender is taking over for the time being, at the family’s request.”  Katheryn’s phone rang.  “Yeah Bobby, find out anything?” she asked into the phone.  “Hold on, I’m gonna put you on speaker phone.”

“OK, so the only thing I could squeeze out of the coroner’s office was that the wound was extraordinary, in that it was a deep zig-zag cut about 6-inches long.”  Katheryn and Alex froze, not uttering a word.  “Y’all still there?” asked the voice on the phone.

“Yeah, we’re here.  Thanks, Bobby.  I owe you one,” said Katheryn and pressed the disconnect button.  She looked at Alex.  “I never told him about the other murders or the shape of the wound.  What are you going to do?”

“Me?  Probably crash and burn in front of 200 people and toasting my shot at a Jazz Fest slot,” said Alex with tearful voice.   She composed herself again, and in a clear solid voice said, “We’re going on, and I’ll play my old Strat.” 

Katheryn reached over and hugged Alex.  “Atta girl!”

Alex knew she could never pick up the Gold Top again.  She clearly appreciated what was at stake tonight, and that it involved not just her, but Joey and them as well.  She closed her eyes and began meditating.  Thinking about each song they would play, what it meant to her, how if applied to her life.  As she mentally worked her way through the set list, her confidence began to return.  Sure, the Gold Top might have made her sound better at first, but she was practicing daily for hours, and was improving.  How much, she realized she was going to find out tonight.  She practiced with her old Fender Stratocaster, reuniting with the instrument she had spent hundreds of untold hours playing.  After an hour, it felt like she had been reacquainted with an old friend. It had been her dad’s old friend before his death.  Play from the heart.

Finally, the departure hour was upon her.  Mil swung by in her dad’s car, and Alex walked out with her Strat.  Mil didn’t even notice the guitar switch.  The loaded the gear into the van that Joey was able to borrow again, and headed down to the club.  The bar tender, now acting manager let them in the side door.  Nobody knew anything except what was being reported on TV.  Alex was not interested in small talk, she wasn’t sure she could even talk.

Joey finally caught on that she brought her Strat.  “Hey Alex, what’s up with the Strat?  That Les Paul Gold Top sounded so sweet.  Perfect.  Why the change?”

Alex shrugged her shoulders, and replied.  “I don’t know, I guess I’m doing this for my dad.  This was his Strat.”  

Joey nodded, “Cool.”

They were all set up in plenty of time, and sat in the green room burning nervous energy.  Alex practiced the signature licks, which in some instances seemed to be off just a fraction of a beat.  Everyone seems off just enough to make them all edgy.  Just before they were to go on, Alex stood and said, “I just want to tell y’all what a privilege it has been …”  Her bandmates all raised their eyebrows as if on cue.  “So far, I mean.”  The band slipped back into normal character.  “Look, we’ve come a long way fast because of our hard work, dedication …”

“And the fact that we’re friggin’ awesome,” interjected Joey.  They all laughed.

“Yeah, you right about that Joey,” said Jeff.

“Come on, let’s go light them up,” said Alex with upbeat measure.

They did not wait for an introduction, as they weren’t sure it was coming anyway.  The had decided to stick to the same set-list as from the night before.  Alex took a deep breath, looked to the heavens and said out loud to the band, “Play with your heart” and started cranking out the signature chord progression and funky rhythm of Fire on the Bayou.  She closed her eyes and was empowered by the bank coming in perfectly and the roar of appreciation from the crowd.  Tears flowed down her face as she held the beat from start to finish.  A rush of emotion washed over her consciousness. It was thing of beauty, clean, refreshing even covering an old New Orleans iconic standard.  They nailed it.  She nailed it.  Goosebumps covered her back and arms, knowing that it was their collective talent, their genuine talent that moved the emotion of the crowd.  When the crowd cheered, their energy filled her soul, taking her to emotional heights she had never experienced.  She smiled knowing the rest of the night would go well, and it did.

***

The next morning, as church bells rang from St. Stephens Catholic Church on Napoleon calling the faithful to mass, Alex got out of Katheryn’s car with the Gold Top in its case.  She walked up to Ms.  Sallae’s and placed the guitar on her top step, knocked on the door, then turned and walked across the street.  The old lady opened the door and sneered at Alex, then looked down at the guitar.  From the car, Katheryn videoed the exchange to prevent untruthful allegations.  The old lady picked up the guitar, returned into her home and gently closed the door.  A weight lifted from Alex’s chest, a cool fresh breeze offered promise of a fine day. 

Alex returned to Katheryn’s car, opened the passenger door.  “I think I’ll walk home Katheryn.  It’s a beautiful day” said Alex.  She paused then offered her hand to Katheryn, and pressed it warmly.  “I don’t know how to thank you.  What are you going to do with the story?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  My boss thinks I lost my mind.  Maybe I’ll write a short story about it.”

“Write from the heart, Katheryn.  I’ll see you around.”

 

 

THE END