Janelle was small and birdlike but comparisons to Piaf are inapt. She sang in our guitar-based bar band, was its cynosure and only drawing card. When she died in bed, no one is quite sure how, our band collapsed.
I’d always had a hankering for her but as lead guitarist, cofounder, and leader of the band my misplaced professionalism won out. Grieving, I’d wanted to change the band’s name from Smallness to SparrowSong. I was overruled.
The band reassembled at our home bar a few months after the funeral. We were all still stuck in our day jobs, none of us had found another band. Earlier that week we started interviewing replacement singers. None of them had Janelle’s waifish – not exactly charm, not even a presence. Michelle, an old high school flame who had a sultriness Janelle could never attain came closest to her near-melodic squawk. I knew better than to ask her to lose weight though.
We were sitting at the bar draining our last pitcher when Tom, our former part time roadie, came in. We used to make fun of him behind and in front of his back but we weren’t up to it anymore. He’s smarter than all of us, I thought, he’ll finish community college in the spring.
Tom ordered another pitcher, hardly drank any of it, and started talking about holograms. We were too far gone to understand him. At the end of his spiel, I took him aside. “I thought you were planning to work at the hospital when you graduate.”
“I still may,” he stammered, “but I want to show you this project. If I get it to work, I could win a scholarship to State. Then I’d get a much better job.”
“I went to State for two and a half years,” I reminded him.
“Why’d you leave?”
I put my beer mug down, half on the table, half on a cardboard coaster, didn’t smile a twisted smile. “I came back to be a rock star.”
The next Sunday we met, sober, in the basement of Tom’s parents’ house. His hologram was rough but it seemed to evoke her. “That’s Janelle all right,” Stu, our drummer said.
I’d gotten the confirmation I’d half wanted, half dreaded.
Tom and I spent most evenings the next six weeks working on his apparatus. I enjoyed the role reversal. At lunch or right after my shift on the loading dock ended, I’d run to whatever store was likely to have the parts we would need that evening. We’d assemble, test, and reassemble our new Janelle until Tom’s mother knocked on the basement door and told us to stop.
There were of course nights when our experiment backslid. I remember the Thursday night before Easter when we working on the timing mechanism. We’d just heard the knock on the door. I loosened my grip on the wrench. Tom started putting his tools and diagrams away. “We need to finish this by mid-May so I can show it to my faculty adviser at State.”
“I know. We’ll only have the summer to tour with her. If we get less than two months it won’t be worth it.”
Tom took a couple of tall boys from the downstairs icebox, handed one to me. “What did you study at State anyway?”
“Business, with a concentration on logistics.”
“It’s the study of supply chains mostly.”
“Why’d you really quit?”
“I don’t know. I knew that however much I made in business, I’d only be helping others get much richer than me. I saw Janelle a few times during winter break, went back to school, started to become interested in shrinkage.”
Tom made a face.
“Stealing. I got the materials for the casing for Janelle Two from the warehouse where I work. We need to keep costs down.”
We took Easter weekend off then made a breakthrough the following week. After another week of tweaks and finishing touches, we were ready for our first trial run.
I could tell my bandmates hadn’t touched their instruments in months. I was out of practice too but that was because I’d been busy with the hologram.
“Remember,” Tom said, “I have Janelle coming in and out of the vocal breaks on a timer. You can’t solo too long.”
“Who wants to solo? We just want to get through our sets so we can drink and be with our groupies.”
“You’ll never get any groupies if you don’t solo.”
It wasn’t hard to get everyone to agree that I, the surviving founder and in utero rock star, would take the only solos. “I’ll share the women,” I told them. “Whoever backs me up best gets first dibs. Now let’s get to work. We have a show in three weeks.”
Cutting my solos short was more difficult than I thought it would be. The bar owners didn’t want us playing fifteen or twenty minute songs. They wanted their patrons ordering drinks, not nodding off to long grooves. As I adjusted, I came to like the discipline of the short timed passage. “Think of it as writing a haiku or a sonnet instead of the long pointless free verse you usually play,” Tom’s younger sister told me when she came down to watch us rehearse.
We posted a rough clip of one of our rehearsals on an internet video sharing site a few days before our first show. It got a few views, but not as much as we thought we’d get.
Our return to the stage was sold out. We weren’t sure why. “There are lots of women out there,” Stu said.
“Yeah, but they’re all with their men,” Rick, the bassist said.
“Be patient. It’ll take time,” I hissed. “Get ready for Tom’s cue.”
Although we didn’t play that well, the show went better than I’d expected it to. I spotted a reporter for the county weekly paper, an old college friend, at a corner table, ignored him during my solos, managed to finish them on time. Janelle entered on cue, sang every song better than she had before she died. The audience even asked for an encore. Flummoxed but strangely suave, we had Tom reset the device so we could reprise the last song we’d played, our only local almost hit.
After the show we sat at the round corner table with the reporter and the owner of the bar. The pitchers and wings were on the house for once. We were all relieved we hadn’t botched our comeback. “Why do you think we had so many people?” I asked.
“Curiosity about Janelle,” the owner said. “People miss her.”
Two women, friends of the reporter, came over. One sat with Tom, the other with Rick. The woman on Rick’s lap looked directly at me, smiled strangely. I touched my face, self-conscious of my pockmarks. Maybe that happened at a different show, in a different bar. Though our near triumphant return should stand out, those early crude shows share a sameness that clouds recollection.
Whether through word of mouth, a mostly positive review in the county paper, or other kinds of networking, we managed to book every weekend that summer. Our final show was scheduled for Janelle’s hometown, her county’s seat, a hundred miles away, the weekend before Tom started at State.
I was more nervous than I’d ever been before a show or exam when I stepped into the van for the long ride out. Everyone else in the band was relaxed. Stu and Rick reminisced about their conquests, decided it would be worth touring again next summer for the women. “How many groupies did you get?” Rick asked me.
“A gentleman never tells,” Tom defended me.
“Yes, but—,” Rick stopped when I closed my eyes. Everyone thought I was meditating, envisioning my improvisations. We planned to play our most rocking song for the encore. Tom had extended the timer an extra ten seconds. As soon as my solo ended Janelle’s extravagant heart-rending a cappella screech would close the tour. I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was what I did and didn’t do that summer. If I was a grade schooler writing his first essay of the semester all I could say is that I fiddled with a hologram machine and played my guitar on Friday and Saturday nights. I hadn’t gotten more musical, I didn’t meet anyone, didn’t progress in any way. On Mondays, I showed up at my warehouse job.
We stopped for gas about thirty miles away from the club. I picked up the local paper. There was an article about Janelle and our gig on the first page of the weekend Arts section. A three-time state gymnastics champ, head cheerleader, lead pixie in the drama club – six years ago she was voted most likely to succeed. She was the third member – of four so far – of her high school class to die. Rick looked at the picture of Janelle smiling as she performed a split in her black tights. “Man, I miss her,” he said.
The bar was bigger than any we’d played in and more crowded. A couple of high school bands played short sets before we came on. I hoped we’d play as well as they did. From the green room (a bare area behind the stage with a table, some chairs, access to a private bathroom, and a door to the outside for smokers), I recognized her parents and older brother. I hadn’t seen them since the funeral, the only time we met. I couldn’t read their moods, wondered if they’d come backstage to congratulate or excoriate us after the show.
We stepped onto the stage about thirty minutes later than was planned. I noticed that the crowd was well-dressed unlike our ordinary audiences. We took a few minutes to tune our instruments then motioned to the emcee.
“…so please welcome the best small band in a big state – Smallness!”
“Thank you,” I said above the polite applause. “Hyperbole is always appreciated.” I‘m not sure anyone heard me. The band, at Tom’s cue, had already started. I barely had time to jump in. Our songs weren’t received as well as I hoped most likely because at least three quarters of the audience came only out of curiosity about Janelle. Their response was so tepid I wondered if we should even bother with an encore. “We owe it to Janelle,” Rick said. “Besides, Tom’s already got his machine ready to go.”
I took some time to scan the audience as we filed back onto the small stage. I saw a few security guards – glorified Pinkertons but where is the glory? – standing to either side of Janelle’s family. They seemed to be eying the casings of the hologram machine. One of them started toward the stage, I wondered if I’d spend the night in jail, the song started. Muscle memory, the reason we rehearse, took over until my solo began. As bass, drums, rhythm guitar plodded pianissimo behind me I knew I had to put everything into the culmination of our tour. I tried to smile as I picked the opening notes— it came out more like a closed-eye grimace— it’s supposed to be a grimace— I’m a rock star not a danseur — I was starting to repeat my riffs— I could loop like that— I shouldn’t loop— I have to branch out— too much of what I do is an undifferentiated chunk— I need to find the grain in the marbleized meat so popular in these parts— I’m repeating myself—looping— what of the word loop and it’s kin or near kin— loup— no they’re not kin— I could look them up later— there were wolves spotted nearby— it was mentioned in the paper on the way in— not in the Arts section— I should have planned this spot in the van instead of moaning— mooning¬—about my summer— I can’t think about the moon or the summer wind—I’m too windy— still I’ve gained things— I’m a little more poised now— more reconciled to my circumstances— not wiser— just beaten down— smooth in defeat —maybe I should quit my warehouse job— move into the business world— be more like the new kind of people— town people— in our audience— I opened my eyes saw them sitting or standing— agape or aghast— and realized I’d exceeded my allotted time. I halted mid-note, stared at the screen. Janelle’s image seemed to hesitate. Once she realized I’d finished, she wailed her closing chorus— some of her nervous overblown tremolo returned— held that last note two maybe three seconds longer than she was programmed to. Tom sat in his chair sweating, tense, mystified. The audience murmured not sure what to make of us. Janelle’s image was fading, I might never see her again.
“Janelle, is that really you? Are you in some kind of afterlife?”
“Yes, but I’m too weak to stay here long.”
“What’s it like?”
“I haven’t been able to meet anyone. It’s very small.”
Clyde Liffey lives near the water. He tweets, rarely, @ClydeLiffey