Friday, October 19, 2007

Bluebird (Part III)

(Please read Parts I and II first, posted below this.)
Nick met Alex on the patio of a small apartment complex which he discerned was really a halfway house. Alex sat waiting in a small green painted chair next to a green painted table which held a glass of ice water with a slice of lemon in it, and a glossy magazine folded inside out. Alex Skarski was paler and thinner than ever. Large sunglasses sheltered her eyes. Her long legs stretching out from a dark blue skirt momentarily vibrated. Otherwise she was as unmoving as the concrete patio. Her face was expressionless.

"You look fantastic," Nick lied. To himself he thought she looked dead. "How ya doing?"

"Tremendous," she told him with no enthusiasm. "I've been reading about the happy couple. Melissa and Brent."

"Melissa and Brent!" Nick said, with a ring of hilarity in his voice. "Well matched. Brent's an accomplished artist-- started at the top. His work is interesting. Borderline genius or borderline retarded. I attended one of his openings. People asked me what I thought and all I could do was beam at one of the paintings and smile and sip from my drink and say, 'Yes, well, it's certainly, well, yes!'"

He laughed at his political skills. Alex looked blank.

"The happy couple," Nick went on more seriously, performing a monologue before his challenging audience; challenging because he'd always been a bit intimidated by-- or attracted to-- Alex Skarski. "Melissa needs the stability. Brent: a preening wooden-headed mannequin who believes he's as talented as art-world sycophants say he is."

Alex didn't respond to this. She stared toward the ice water in the glass. "Why are you here?" she asked.

"I need you back in the band. Melissa needs you back."

Alex looked at him through the sunglasses-- glared at him, he believed. She was "cured" of drugs and alcohol-- Nick needed to know if after the cure there was anything left of her.

"Can you still play?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "Better than ever."

She spoke the words with pronounced throatiness, hinting of buried wells of energy and passion. Nick nodded his head, satisfied.

Rehearsals began at an estate outside Los Angeles, down the road from a modest several-million dollar "cottage" Melissa had bought for herself and Brent. She'd written several new songs. As the band practiced them in the mansion's sun room, Brent observed dispassionately, there to offer moral support to his girlfriend. His Significant Other. His Life's Mate. I'd like to say, "his wife," but Brent had no intention of marrying Melissa Bluebird.

The band was rounded out by two new members, replacements for the two originals who'd tired of being pop stars and gone on with their lives. The newbies were marginally competent mercenaries. One had been a failed teen model, the other a failed child actress. Despite their premature jadedness, they looked the part of Bluebirds. They were young and knew how to smile.

During a break Alex sat in a large and sunny living room with one of the new girls-- the other'd jumped into a car and sped off "for something to eat." Melissa was upstairs making phone calls, or napping, or taking a bath. Brent took a seat in the living room, a bottle of beer in his hand. The three strangers immersed themselves in the laziness of California sunshine.

"Good to see you," Brent said to Alex. "You being back is the one fresh aspect of this project."

"How are you?" Alex asked him.

"Bored," he said. "Totally absolutely eternally metaphysically bored."

A couple afternoons later when everyone had sped off in their cars on personal errands, Melissa included, Brent Botherwell lounged in the pool outside. Very white Alex in a dowdy one-piece swimsuit joined him. To his surprise she swam laps, her wide shoulders propelling her powerfully through the water. Brent watched, smirking, by the side of the shocking blue pool, impressed, trying to think of a bon mot.

"I don't do laps," he told her when she finally stopped.

"What do you do?" she asked, mocking him, but he didn't notice.

He blinked for a moment.

"Let's go upstairs and find out," he said.

Alex pretended to be shocked. "Oh! One of the lovebirds," she said, in teacher-like disapproval which made Brent think he'd like to be disapproved by her, up close. "What would Melissa think? Aren't you in love with Melissa?"

"Melissa is Melissa," he said.

"Miss Perfect. Don't you enjoy Miss Perfect?"

He answered for the moment. "No."

Alex tsked him for this. Then her eyes opened wide in feigned realization.

"Maybe Miss Perfect isn't so perfect after all." At the same time she thought Brent was a metaphysical asshole. Still, she'd seldom had a man this good-looking interested in her. To her memory, never. When Brent Botherwell rose from the pool and walked into the house she followed him.

Alex put her reawakened anger into the upstairs encounter, as if she were competing with, or screwing, Miss Perfect herself.

The new tour's first stop was Detroit. Dennis Deniczek, enlisted on board at the last minute, had scheduled it. The thinking was that only the capital of rock grittiness would properly fit the band's gritty new image.

The band flew in on a Thursday, one day before the concert. The limousine from the airport drove them past the venue, the famously gigantic Fox Theater on Woodward Avenue, a fully restored Gothic-style movie palace which now hosted live shows.

The white limo halted in front and Melissa leapt out, quickly joined by the others.

"There it is, kids," Dennis exclaimed. "In lights!"

Above the marquee: the "Fox" sign which at night could be seen for miles. On the marquee itself, two words: "MELISSA BLUEBIRD."

Unselfconsciously Melissa frolicked and basked in her name on the sign above. Her three bandmates watched in genuine admiration. A photographer who worked for Nick snapped photographs.

"Now, a few together," he said.

The four girls scrunched close, Alex and Melissa with arms around each other at the center with only a trace of awkwardness.

"Wow," Alex said when they parted. "This is fun. Or I forgot it could be fun."

"You were electric," the photographer gushed. "I could feel the electricity. I took some great shots."

The limo drove around the seedier edges of downtown; among the ruins.

The photographer took several photos of Melissa standing with legs spread and hands on her hips, her three bandmates set several yards behind her looking grim, the city's cavernous shell of a train station behind them.

Their hotel was the old Leland, several blocks from the theater. It also was a ruin of sorts, but one which remained open. The two men and the driver carried the heavier bags across an enormous lobby hung with large chandeliers, up a wide blue carpeted staircase to the desk.

"Once, this town was rich," Dennis commented.

"Long ago," Alex said. "I used to live in Detroit you know. Not far from here."

"I need to take a bath," Melissa commanded.

As the hotel was much less than half booked, the band and its entourage had an entire floor to itself, for a modest price.

"Going in style," Dennis said when he kicked open the door to Melissa's expansive suite.

Outside the window lay miles of desolate bleakness; deserted streets and shuttered buildings covered by layers of shabbiness. Occasional beaten-down people could be seen walking slowly upon uneven sidewalks.

"Where's the theater?" Melissa asked.

Dennis pointed.

"Oh! There it is."

The sign, marking a glamorous corner of renaissance, stood above the surrounding structures.

Melissa had a full-enough schedule before the concert, including an interview on an afternoon radio show. Also, a journalist doing a feature article about her for a Manhattan-based fashion magazine was in town. She was to meet him for dinner.

The radio show was a waste, the smug host full of himself. The enounter with the magazine writer held more promise.

They met at an elegant, almost empty restaurant in "Foxtown," the area around the theater.

"I made reservations," the reporter, a Brit, said. "I scarcely needed to."

"It's creepy, isn't it," Melissa answered.

"I think it's fascinating," he said as he looked at her blue eyes, searching for opinion behind them.

He told her he'd been Editor-in-Chief of a now defunct N.Y. glossy-- "One goes under every day and a new one pops up to take its place"-- was the son of an Earl and other than his writing and the brief swipe at editing "which put an established magazine under and its entire staff in the unemployment line," he'd never worked a day in his life.

"I'm a fop, as some would say, and proud of the fact."

"I think that's awful," Melissa told him. "I love to work."

"What's awful is that your aristocracy here doesn't know how to be an aristocracy. You're embarrassed at money and privilege and run away from it. You pretend to run away from it."

Melissa didn't agree with him but didn't know what to say.

"I use my money for good things," she finally mentioned. "Good causes, I mean."

"Order well. Remember, I'm on an expense account," the writer said.

After dinner they asked the waiter for a livelier place to drink. He pointed them to a roomy hotel bar nearby called the Town Pump Tavern. The Town Pump was a classy old place in a dilapidated once-nice hotel which now served as a rooming house for vagabond punks and poor people. The wood-panelled barroom itself was immaculate, from another era.

"Quite a fascinating city, really," the writer said as he drank a glass of imported ale. "Darkness and character."

The Britsh writer was generically handsome, so generic as to be quickly forgotten. He counted on his wit to make an impression, but his personality was lost amid the chairs and bottles of the darkly-lit room.

"Will this be a positive article?" Melissa asked him.

"Yes. I'm afraid so. It'll be bloody terrible."

The next day clouds of dark blue gathered in the Detroit sky. Rain clouds, stretching over the gray city and far beyond it with no end in sight. The band observed this from high-up windows in high-ceilinged oversized rooms, before they made their way through the silent mausoleum of a hotel, through oversized hallways to gather downstairs in the lobby.

They ate a late breakfast at Luci and Ethel's coffeeshop on the ground floor. Then the group arrived at the theater for an afternoon soundcheck, entering a guarded Receiving door at the front and walking down narrow corridors to the performance area.

A huge curtain stood in front of them as they unpacked. Gone were the trademark blue costumes and instruments. Melissa's three bandmates wore black leather outfits, sleeveless and short. Hers was the same except its color was white. They'd worn them to see how their new guises would appear on stage.

The many-piece drumset already there was also white. It shimmered in the light. Using the foot-pedal, the drummer hit the bass drum, then did a riff with her sticks on a snare. The short-haired keyboardist professionally smiled. Her keyboard was deep orange. A few carny notes from that.

Melissa and Alex removed their "axes" from their cases. Both guitars were glossy new, special-ordered by the record company. Alex's was gold, with black patterns; Melissa's bright red. They gazed with wonder at what they held, as if magic were embodied in the primitive-looking devices.

Alex let her guitar's lacquered face play with the overhead lights. One saw the world in the guitar. It dazzled like a gleaming shield.

The two women plugged in and touched the electric strings. Sound jumped from them. Lightning bolts were at their fingertips. The fragile humans were transformed by the sudden power available to them. Their eyes widened.

The curtain lifted. The band felt momentarily dwarfed by the immensity of the great hall. Before them swept rising rows of red seats; golden columns above them on all sides. The ceiling was an expression of the heavens, with a giant hyperbolic chandelier placed like a sun at the center of it. The entire gothic plaster cathedral of American pop culture was hyperbolic.

Without warning the drummer pounded a beat and the band exploded loudly into a fast-paced song, a release of pent-up energy created by the practicing, the traveling, the waiting; the hiatus; by the sheer anticipation of taking the stage. With their new instruments of laser-beam sound Alex and Melissa kicked it into high gear-- deep notes prodding higher ones-- on the chorus joining voices, "La, la, la la la," their inspired performance matching the fiery-colored hall. For a moment the two women played side-by-side, bumping hips. Then the wash of music was over as quickly as it'd started. The four players caught their breaths, sweating happily.

"We should've got that on tape," Dennis shouted from somewhere within the empty auditorium. "It's the best thing you've ever done."

Shortly after, the band returned to the hotel to nap.

Alex nervously drank coffee and destroyed a pack of cigarettes in the diner downstairs while the others relaxed. Eventually she made her way back to the elevators. She wore a beat-up leather jacket over her costume, which she'd been too lazy to change.

Futilely she searched in her room for more cigarettes. "Fuck!" Should she shower? Not until after, she decided, but took off the jacket.

Alex fingered a plastic pass card, which she used to enter Melissa's suite. The high-up floor seemed unsteady under her feet. Melissa had asked her to drop by to keep her company.

Darkness fell early upon the city outside the hotel room: a moody October night. Melissa stretched on one of the beds in her stage outfit, bolstered by golden-yellow pillows. Rain scattered against a window. The glow of an art deco lamp next to the bed made the corner of the room appear to be the only secure spot in a world of dread.

Melissa held the room's white phone receiver in her hand, on a call with Brent Botherwell in Los Angeles. Eyes flashed within a stage-ready face. It sounded like an intense call. Alex went into the bathroom-- a mile away on the other side of the suite. She looked at her face in the mirror then splashed water onto it. A hideous face. The bathroom light exposed every failing in it, every secret.

She turned off the light, stepped out and listened. Melissa was off the phone.

A few blocks away, colorful neon letters crept up a building and displayed themselves high on a sign into the darkness. "FOX." Concert goers were arriving, congregating with tickets in a line upon the brightly illuminated sidewalk.

Alex walked slowly and faced Melissa, who still sprawled upon the bed; faced her as would an obedient dog. Melissa stared back at her with piercing blue eyes, scrutinizing her up and down.

"That was Brent," Melissa said. "He told me everything. He always eventually tells me everything. So he told me about you and him."

Brent the narcissistic coward, confessing all with dramatic bathos, purging his sin when it could do the most harm in order to raise his importance.

Melissa Bluebird waited, as if expecting Alex to confess, to explain or apologize, but to Alex there was nothing to say because it hadn't meant anything except at the time.

"I'm sorry," she eventually said.

"You're fired, of course," Melissa told her. "I can't work with someone like you. I don't want to work with anyone like you."

"Fired?" Alex asked. "What about Dennis, or Nick. Shouldn't they have a say in it?"

"They work for me," Melissa said. "I bring in the money. They do what I tell them."

Alex couldn't help but grin at what she saw as bluff.

"So, what, you go out and perform on your own?"

"Why not?" Melissa immediately answered. "Why not?"

"To a Detroit crowd? A tough Detroit crowd who want their music to rock? This isn't La-La Land, little girl."

To this Melissa stared at Alex as would a five year-old. Few people had talked back to her before. Alex had never talked back. Melissa was stunned at their break-up, for which she wasn't to blame; there was trepidation at what Alex would say but there was also a thrill that the bad girl would now finally be saying it to her. To Melissa. Melissa feared the blast but wanted it. Her heart raced. It pounded.

"I'M the star," Melissa pre-emptively said. "I created the act and the music. You're a hired hand. I need the freedom to run it my way. I've done it my way from the beginning."

Alex snorted in amazement. "Freedom? YOU have freedom? The freedom of a trained pet. Your cage gives you your freedom, to sing and fly around in the cage within its narrow fucking little limits. Do you know what it's like to be free for real? How tough it is?"

"Those are my songs we play, Alex. MY songs. My creations. I created Melissa and the Bluebirds from the ground up. You were added. Don't try to tell me about DIY."

Alex moved dangerously close. Melissa's blue eyes looked away; she clutched an imaginary stuffed animal. Melissa felt surrounded. Trapped, on the bed, on which she was too frozen to move. She should be able to call someone but didn't want to call anyone. Alex peered down at her as she'd peered down at her the first time they'd met, only now with no hesitation or respect.

"You're able to create because you're supported by people like me," Alex said. "By a whole industry of people like me. What do you know about Do-It-Yourself? When have you done anything without tons of people propping you up and smoothing the path and opening doors for you?

"Do you know there are rock bands in this city; THIS city; struggling bands; 'garage' bands who play in local dives, which are better than you or me or the best the Bluebirds have ever been? Yet have never seen a big-money recording contract and never will see one because the way is clogged by the likes of you and me? I could've been one of them, one of the free ones, the authentic ones, but I wasn't good enough for them, but maybe now that I've tasted the world I'll go back to them, to the music and the joy of playing, really playing. REALLY playing. The music-- that's what counts. There are still a few bands who kick ass; still a few raw singers and guitarists who truly know how to rock. You're not one of them, oh pretty one; sad, sad pretty one. Not you. Not you!"

Alex was crying.

"I hope that's not too terrible a thing to say but it's the truth. You'll always have your support system anyway; your family; your Brent! Your Brents and all the rest of your perfect friends; your ridiculously perfect bullshit life."

Melissa had stopped replying. She was thinking that Alex had abandoned her, that was what this was about. Concert? Tonight was a concert. Weirdly enough. She heard Dennis Deniczek knocking on the hotel room door, far away. The car outside would be waiting. Her fans. . . . How could she go through with it?

"Anyway," Alex said, calmer, resigned, but with outraged pride. "Fire me if you want, or I quit. It doesn't matter. Nick thought I needed the money but I don't need money. That's not what I was after; not why I joined."

Alex stepped away. At the theater, fans took their seats. The magazine journalist waited expectantly in the wings. The opening act began to play. Feet were stamping, the huge theater beginning to shake, to rock. . . .

The spectre of Alex stood in a costume that would not be worn on stage by her tonight or anywhere again.

"I just want to be what I was meant to be," the spectre said in a resonant voice. "A girl who knew how to rock."

She was gone.

The hotel room was empty-- the large, celebratory suite. Melissa Bluebird was alone. Though she'd fired Alex Skarski, she felt deserted by her. Only now did she realize how much she needed Alex's strength.

She recited a melody from one of the new songs, "La, la. la la la," while in her head she walked through an endless forest. She noticed she was shaking.

Well, she could be a tough girl also. She'd prove Alex wrong. She'd perform the concert. If she fell on her face, so be it. And why should she? The audience would love her. After all, she was Melissa Bluebird. Melissa Bluebird! Her entire life she'd been only loved.

"Go," Melissa said to a person who wasn't there. "You're dismissed."

The FOX sign glowed bleeding red into the night, changing to purple, then blue. Rain fell from a purple sky upon Alex Skarski, who sat on a stone bench below an old green statue in a park across the street and two blocks down from the theater, the columned palace where Melissa performed inside. Alex imagined she heard the applause. Echoes of it carried through the rolling mists.

Alex was damp and numb. She sipped from a hastily purchased bottle of cheap whiskey. She was back at her origins, wondering in her human ignorance about the nature of art, career, success. As her mind wandered into more painful territory Alex wondered about personality and about love.

Rain washed through her eyes. To give a lingering final chord to her thoughts she glanced once more at the lighted marquee down the street which held the two names:

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