Sunday Afternoon: Playlists

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Milo and Moffat knew their stuff, walking me slightly too quickly through the equipment and setup. I felt relieved that most of the complicated stage theatrics were accomplished without changing the fundamentals of how I played. I felt more confident already.

“So, think ya can get ’round now?” Milo asked me seriously. I could see that, for all his playfulness, he wouldn’t leave me hanging when it came to the show.

“I think so. It’s more complicated than I expected.”

“Nah, not if us dummies can figger it out.”

“You’re no dummy!” I cried, shocked. “Don’t say that!”

“Right, yeah, can’ say that. Respect myself. Yeah. So, you really into pussy like they say? ‘Cause…”

Moffat turned, outraged.

“You can’ ASK that! Jus’ ask if she likes dick too.”

“Watch yer mouth,” Milo countered. “Lizard’ll have you cleaning toilets or sumpin.”

“You watch your mouth. Sorry, pretty lady, this boy’s uncouth,” Moffat slid up beside me conspiratorially.

“Un-what? Showin’ off like you know.”

“I know. Hey, I bet YOU don’ know what under here, l’il Mouse. ” Moffat scurried over to a lumpy pile of blankets at the back of the stage as he spoke, shooting a devilish glance at Milo to gauge his reaction.

“Shut up! Shut up! Fu…I mean…aaaagggh! You don’ say nothin’!”

“She won’tell, I see, Mouse is a quiet sort.”

“Don’t make me kill you, Moffat, I swear…”

“Respect each other. No threatenin’.

I thought I’d better do something, or this ping-pong could go on all day.

“What’s under there?” I asked, suddenly dying to know.

Milo moved to block me but not before Moffat lifted the edge of the curtain and I couldn’t help but cry “oooooh” at the impressive fireworks array.

“Ta da! Pyro, for the show!” crowed Moffat, as Milo tackled him and the boys went rolling in a wrestling match. Moffat laughed while Milo fought hard, clearly livid. But Moffat had a foot more height, so he just held Milo at bay with his long arms as legs. Suddenly, Milo gave up, and they both sprung to their feet .

“Gonna be EPIC!” insisted Moffat

“EPIC!” agreed Milo, and they both jumped two feet in the air, where they high-fived. Their energy seemed like a super power – I could swear they just drank five jolt colas or had springs in their shoes. Just as suddenly as he’d relented, Milo seemed to remember his irritation.

“I can’ believe you told her, man. Our secret! Brotherhood, an’ all?”

“Ah, ya know, when a hot chick’s breathin’ down yer neck. Can’ blame me, nah?” Moffat looked down, sheepish.

“Nah!” relented Mio, and they embraced like long-lost brothers.

“Hey, I wasn’t breathing down anyone’s neck.”

They looked up at me like they’d forgotten I was there.

“So you tell it,” said Milo, slowly. “But, yeah, make sense, ya don’ wan’ Trix knowin’ you lustin’ after man-meat like us. Can’ risk losin’ yer sugarmomma.” His grin tugged past his attempts to hold it back. He was taking great pleasure in teasing me.

“Oh my god, you are total brats! This is sexual harassment, you know. And, you going to blow this whole place up!”

I have never seen two people look more offended in my life.

“No way, We know our shi-stuff!” cried Moffat, indignantly.

“So jus’ you stay away, this here’s dangerous. Leave it to us professionals,” Milo interjected.

“Like you a pro-fessional anythin’!”

“You’re a professional pain in the a…butt!”

“Okay,” I broke in. “Seriously, boys, does anyone know you have these?”

“Course they know! Hey, don’ we always do pyro for the show?” Milo called to the room at large. I hadn’t noticed there were at least fifteen boys working around the theatre. Some of them just kept working, while others looked up, curious or non-committal. A few called out halfhearted “yeah” and “sure” answers before turning back to work. I remained unconvinced. I saw more people beginning to approach the stage, and realized it must be almost one o’clock. I wished I’d come even earlier. Milo pulled on my arm, turning me toward him, looking me in the eye, like he had something earnest and important to say.

“Jus’ you forget what you saw. You are getting sleepy. When I count to three, you will forget all about everythin’. One…”

Moffatt couldn’t keep quiet.

“What are ya, stupid? You gottta be more ‘pecific. If you say ‘forget all about everythin’ then she forget EVERYTHIN’, her name an shi…forget her name, and how to play guitar, an…”

“Um, you do know you can’t actually hypnotize me, right? so, it doesn’t matter what words you pick?”

“You are getting sleepy…”

“Playlists, get your playlists!” Jamie called, ballpark style, making his way down towards the stage. I felt a rush of gratitude to see him – he already felt like an old friend. Milo and Moffat took off like dogs after a softball, or a rabbit. Actually, so did everyone in the place. I was the only person not scrambling to make a grab. It wasn’t just musicians flocking Jamie like geese – workers around the theatre clamoured for their copies as well. Everyone read with surprising eagerness. The thick “playlists” looked more like playbooks. Some people rapidly flipped and scanned, while others drank in full pages. Several clusters of two and three people read together, exchanging excited whispers with bent heads. Jamie sauntered over and handed me a copy.

“Lucky I like you, so I saved you one,” he smirked. “Just wait till you see. This is gonna be interesting.”

Something told me I didn’t share his enthusiasm for whatever was coming next. A chill had descended on the room. People muttered behind the books, as though to obscure who said what. I heard “covers” and “nep” whispered with disdain, the voices a hiss of restrained disapproval.

Trace and Bash stood off to one side, uninvolved and seemingly unaffected. I imagined they already knew what the books contained.Trix held centre stage, surveying the scene with interest, her expression both open and determined, maybe slightly amused. She had clearly expected this reaction, and stood ready to face it. Not reassured, I opened my playbook.

A table of contents outlined three distinct parts to the show – First Half, Second Half, Third Quarter, and the songs for each section. Each song owned its own double-page spread. Roles and positions for each musician and dancer accompanied descriptive directions with hand-drawn stage depictions. A symbol showed each musician where to be – my own a little cartoon mouse, which I had to admit came out pretty cute. Something about that simple little whiskered nose did remind me of myself. I knew right away that Jamie drew her.

I flipped through the pages. Oddly, only four or five of the songs had any sheet music. As I looked more closely, I saw what they all had in common because I’d just heard the word: covers. They were all well-known songs by other bands. They had two other things in common. One: I was lead guitar on all of them. And two: I knew every one of them cold. How did she know? And what did it mean? I caught several people giving me the evil eye. I saw what they were thinking.

“Oh, shit,” I whispered. Jamie’s glance down contained pity, disgust and humour that, combined, felt a little like grudging admiration. He leaned in close beside me, turning his eyes casually toward Trix and the room. He sang under his breath.

“Trix and Mouse, sitting in a tree…”

“Shut up!” I whispered back.

“Oooh, she likes you. This could be trouble with the troops. My advice: just roll with it. Act like a Queen and they’ll treat you like a Queen.”

“Queen Marie Antoinette? Queen Anne Boleyn?” I whispered back.

“Queen Chrissy Purnell, isn’t it, Mouse? We know who you are.” Jamie shot me a sly smile, the cat who caught the canary.

Oh. They knew. My stomach bottomed out. I took in my breath and sent it to my brain. I knew this would come up, I told myself. No big deal. No big deal.

Trix still watched the disgruntled crowd. I wished she would say something to break the tension. Overhearing my thought, she caught my eye and winked quickly, then surveyed the assembly with an exaggerated head-swing.

“Do I hear…questions?” Amusement infused her voice; I thought she might actually laugh. The room’s murmur quieted as people looked around to see who would speak. I actually did have a question that concerned me deeply. As the silence continued, I felt tension seeping into my skin, so my question burst out before I could stop it, eager to fill the space.

“Um, I notice you have me singing a lead? Maybe someone else would be better?”

What I had taken for silence before I spoke had nothing on the empty space left in the wake of my question. Trix only missed one beat. Light, off-hand, she answered me.

“I was being rhetorical, Mouse.” A general chuckle failed to break the tension. Her face became more serious. “But, since you ask, no.”

“I’m not a singer. I mean, I’ll sing backup but…”

I heard snickers. Trix’s face settled into a look that reminded me of my grandma when I’d pushed just a little past the line. She kept her tone encouraging…mostly.

“We all gotta pitch in here, Mouse. I need your sweet soprano on that song.”

“Contralto,” I corrected.

“Not on this song.” Matter-of-fact. No more smile. Trix stared at me like I was beyond fathoming, and I thought I saw her stifle a sigh. I knew I was being irritating but I couldn’t seem to stop.

“That’s what I mean. Really, I’m just not comfortable…”

“Enough!” Trix took three long strides to halve the distance between us, her face set. “Are we really going to do this, Mouse?” she growled.

Trix looked pretty menacing, but something felt off and that compelled me, somehow, to push into this space, like it might make everything make sense. Or maybe I was trying to get out of the whole situation by pissing her off. I stood my ground. We waited for each other to blink while everyone watched.

Trix cocked her head to one side, regarding me like a puzzle in need of study. Suddenly, her eyes lit up, and I thought she would break into a smile; Instead, she held herself in check, poker-face. Trix took two more giant steps, the third ending in a lunge to one knee in front of me, like Prince Charming. She reached out and held my hand. Her voice conveyed a perfect blend of sincerity and irony, making me the butt of a joke but also, somehow, someone worth her trouble.

“Pretty please, will you sing for me, Mouse?” Her eyes bore into mine. I felt this as a critical moment. She needed me to back down. This was something I could do for her, and I was letting her down. I felt my resistance falter, then fade. Why not sing? Since she’d asked so nicely…I nodded, mute.

“Good.”

Trix rose like a wave and bounced back to her original position.

“Any other questions?” she asked. Several people laughed. But not everyone was satisfied.

“Yeah, okay then, I have a question.” This was the electronic percussionist – I almost didn’t recognize him with his shirt on. Trix smiled.

“Okay, Duggan, you have the floor.”

“Covers?” People snickered at his exaggerated incredulity. Encouraged, he joked, “What happened, you run out of material?”

A few laughs responded, but Trix did not smile. She tilted her head.

“Say what you mean.”

Duggan looked up, a little surprised by her serious tone. Emboldened by his success so far, he stepped forward, like he’d decided to take on a challenge for everyone.

“Okay. Fine. I’ll say it. From here, it looks like you’ve given this newbie babydoll all the plums in the pudding.” He didn’t even look at me, just gestured with his hand. Disrespect already.

“Nice imagery. Now, why do you say that?” Trix sounded mild and curious, even as Duggan got a little hot under the collar.

“When have we ever done a cover? Now, what? Four in one show. Did I count right? That’s gotta be for her. Then you’ve got her on a bunch of our songs she’s probably never even heard. When Robbie has the material down, and you don’t even put him on this stage.”

“You have a lot to say. Any interest in listening?” Duggan looked sullen, but waited for her to speak.

“L’il Ms. Mouse can shred Robbie into the ground, my friend. Maybe we need some new sound in here. You folks were getting tired, but I think a change will perk us right up. This one, she’s not just some little chickie off the street. She’s an accomplished musician, classically trained. Not to mention, she’s been on the stage her whole life, playing at her daddy’s knee.”

This generated some interested muttering while my heart sank into the pit of my stomach. Lizard called from the back.

“Come on, don’t leave us hanging! Who’s her daddy, then?”

I didn’t mean to, but it was me who answered.

“Jake Purnell. My dad was Jake Purnell.”

Trix nodded, enthusiastic.

“A legend of his own kind. You may know him or not, but a lot of greats call him mentor from their days on the stage together. And here we’ve got the fruit of his loins, talent blazing for us!” I felt my face burning. Fruit of his loins?

Enough people recognized the name that their murmured surprise changed the mood. Not everyone would know him, especially since most were so young, but I heard “Dusty Purnell” whispered from a few corners. I felt surprised the nickname had reached past its first generation. The record company dropped “Dusty,” and so did my Dad after a few years on the road and his big style-shift. Plus, it was probably too depressing, thinking about that dusty road.

Trix’s use of “legend” felt a bit strong, but I suppose he was, at least to some people. Dad never hit it big, so to speak, but lots of bigger stars list him among their influences when they do radio interviews. Dad just did his thing, making music coast to coast wherever they would have him, until he couldn’t any more. Then he died.

Back at Timeless, Duggan wasn’t backing down. He smelled hypocrisy and he was the man to call it out.

“So, you’re saying that her daddy being someone gets her special treatment?”

“No, her talent and good looks get her special treatment. Her daddy maybe gets her some media attention, which I’ll take. Any we can get. We can’t blow this. Friday is the night. Covers earn us good will with a novice crowd, and as luck would have it, they also let our newest sub shine a little. Her success is our success, no?”

Trix looked away from Duggan, effectively dismissing him from the conversation to address the whole room.

“This is different than we’ve done, and maybe Mouse here seems like she’s getting princess treatment. That’s one way to look. Here’s another. She’s a low-priced ringer, an asset, a last-minute help. Do you understand where we are? Maybe I haven’t been clear. This is it. This is it! Two years, and Friday is when it all comes together. Whatever it takes. You need to decide, right now. Do you trust me? Are you with me?”

Trix looked around slowly, deliberately. She seemed to catch and hold each person’s eye a few seconds; lastly, mine. Strangely, I did trust her, even though she’d just given me good reason not to. Low-priced ringer? What was she setting me up for?

“Are you with me?” Trix asked the room.

“Yes!” came the general shout. I got the impression group responses were part of the Timeless culture. I felt no temptation to join in.

“Can we do this?” Trix demanded.

“Yes!”

Trix noticed my closed mouth with narrowed eyes. I turned away. The rest of the crowd, even Duggan, seemed…if not satisfied, then pacified for the moment. But not me. I churned inside. It just had to be my dad. Once again, I was little Chrissy Purnell, cute sidekick to the legendary Jake. I wanted to be recognized for myself, respected in my own right. It’s hard to earn something that’s always been given to you with the wrong idea in mind. It’s even harder living past it.

Well, it was there in the room, now. The pressure felt just as uncomfortable as it always had, but at least not unfamiliar.

Trix smiled big, and clapped her hands together loudly.

“Well, alright! No time like the present. Let’s run it through!”

Was she serious? I turned to Jamie, panicked.

“Run it through? Like, the playlist we just got?”

I looked around a little wildly – was I the only person with a problem, here? No, a few others showed signs of stress, but most of the band just picked up their instruments. Jamie leaned in so I could hear him.

“Don’t worry, she always does it this way. Sink or swim, she says. First time’s a mess, keep moving. That’s what matters – don’t stop playing, just find your way back and get to the end. Don’t make her stop, trust me!”

Jamie absently flicked his hair out of his eyes, glancing over at the sound board and then at Trix.

“Look, I gotta go make sure those guys’r ready to roll – she’ll kill me if we miss a second! Just have fun, Chrissy Christine. Oh, and live up to everyone’s expectations, of course!” Jamie’s parting snicker reminded me just how high the expectations had risen now.

“Not helpful!” I called to his back.

I picked up the guitar.

“Okay, kiddos,” Trix called out, “this is Playthrough. We’ll play the whole show through once, just to see if we can. We PLAY THROUGH. You’re going to get lost and confused. You’re going to suck. Just play. Have fun with it! DO. NOT. STOP. Do your best.” Trix stepped to the edge of the stage.

“Are we recording? Right. One, Two, Three, GO”

And they started. My open playlist told me we were playing Aching Bones, possibly the third song on the album I’d listened to all of once. I tried to catch the tune to confirm, but the other players weren’t really playing together. It all sounded a bit jumbled to me. I focused on drums and Mr. Strat until I caught a melody I recognized, and picked a few cords to hear how they blended. I felt ridiculous.

Trix moved from person to person, scrutinizing us, while Jamie followed her, taking notes and making hand signals at unseen forces behind the lighting and sound. Trix sang some lyrics here and there, in and out, in an off-handed, distracted way – a placemarker for our benefit. Her mind stayed occupied by what she saw and heard in her own head. When we drifted too far off, she came back to us at full volume and expression, show-quality, her hands clapping out the beat.

My notes twanged contrast as Trix and Jamie stopped in front of me. Trix grimaced with distaste. I didn’t want her scrutiny or her faces. I knew I sounded terrible, that I was failing to keep up. Shame ripped through me with every mistake, only making the next one more likely. She mumbled an instruction to Jamie through their headsets, and moved on.

We finished the first song. Trix clicked a stopwatch, dictated an instruction and immediately counted us into the next. And the next. No matter how poorly we played, she drove us on. She never called a stop, even when songs became unrecognizable, which was most of the time to me. I floundered. I wished desperately for sheet music. The cover songs offered my only relief. As she counted us into the first of them, I flushed with new confidence, and sure enough, my guitar led the entire song. At least she wouldn’t think I was a complete wash.

At the end of the set, Trix turned to us.

“Okay, well that was terrible.” She seemed a little disappointed, but quickly rallied. “Yes, painful. But don’t let it be discouraging. We’re just beginning together. Let’s take ten to recalibrate. Ten, not eleven!”

I wanted the bathroom and some air, not conversation, but Mr. Strat turned to me with something to say. He set his jaw under grey bristles, then smiled – kind of shy-friendly but also a little defensive. I felt something uncomfortable about how he held his body – I made him nervous.

“I thought maybe it was you,” he offered. “I want to say, it wasn’t me who told them who you are, just so you know.”

I squinted my eyes to focus in better on his features. Did I know him? I felt a little well of panic starting to bubble, a mini-whirlpool in the hollow of my stomach. I tried easing my abdominal muscles to quell it.

“John Pratt.” He stuck out his hand, so I shook. That rough hand told the whole story of his life – days of hard labour and nights picking guitar strings.

“I played with your Dad a bit, if you haven’t guessed. Just a few gigs where we crossed paths over the years. That boy could sure charm a crowd.”

“Yeah, he was something, my dad.” John looked me in the eye, and I knew he heard more than I’d meant to let on in that statement.

“I remember you, too, you know. Sassing the waitresses, them thinking you were something sweet anyway. I only saw you play once, and I remember being impressed. Tiny thing like that, ripping it up. Like an angel-devil or something.”

He looked down quickly, not sure if he’d offended me. I wasn’t sure, either. I listened warily, wondering what else he might remember. I didn’t want to talk with him any more. I wanted to go outside and catch my breath. I wanted to pee. Pratt noticed my skittishness and took a step backwards to give me space.

“I don’t want to upset you, girl, I just thought you should know. I thought, if we’re going to play together…it’s just more respectful.” he looked down.

“Thanks.”

“I’m sorry about your dad.”

“Yeah.” Death makes everyone squirm. I felt his discomfort seeping into me and decided to lighten the mood.

“Mr. Strat Pratt? I like that.”

We laughed together at my Seussism. As I’d hoped, John seemed reassured. But he’d given me one more set of achey feelings to stuff down, playing beside him. I did need to know, I supposed, but I wondered if he had told me for my sake, or to relieve himself.

My mind pinged around hitting on thoughts and memories that I normally did a good job of keeping out of my distraction zone. Each one lit up as the pinball hit. The hot light on a dirty stage in some mid-west dive, playing the crowd into a frenzy with my dad. A pair of scuffed shoes my last sight as I curled up on a sweater behind the bar to sleep. The smell of grease and raw meat in the kitchen.

Other pictures – a face, a hand, a knife, red hot haze of pain…stop.

Stop.

I made my way to the washroom, peed and washed my hands, then rinsed my face with cold water in the sink. I looked at myself in the mirror, clicking in on my own eyes, the skin at the corners softening with recognition.

“You’re okay,” I whispered. For a second, I believed it.

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