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Dirty little secret, p.1
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       Dirty Little Secret, p.1

           Jennifer Echols
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Dirty Little Secret

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  For my dad,

  who plays banjo


  Heartfelt thanks to my editors, Lauren McKenna and Emilia Pisani; my agent, Laura Bradford; and my critique partners, Catherine Chant and Victoria Dahl.


  On Tuesday I was in a band with Elvis. Lucky for me, he wasn’t the overweight Elvis from the 1970s, eating a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich and wearing a sequined jumpsuit, the version most impersonators go for. In that case, Ms. Lottie, the wardrobe lady, would have decked me out in a Las Vegas costume with a huge headpiece, a sheer body stocking, and sequined pasties over my nipples. Everybody in the band was supposed to match, more or less. So if the lead singer had been drugged-out Elvis on death’s door in Vegas, his fiddle player would have been a bare-breasted showgirl.

  And to think: my sweet granddad had gotten me this afternoon job. If I’d had to wear an outfit like that, it would have served the rest of my family right.

  Fortunately, I’d been hired as a fiddle player to fill out tribute bands in Nashville, not Vegas. The bandleader for my first gig was the young rockabilly Elvis from a 1950s movie, wearing a broad-shouldered suit with a skinny tie and wing-tip shoes. Ms. Lottie had an honest-to-God circle skirt for me. Considering what I’d imagined when she’d first said “Elvis,” I was relieved. The skirt was way too big, though. She had to fold darts into the waistband and sew me into it.

  Then she eyed my hair, lifting short black sections with her carefully manicured pinkie nail, squinting at my locks through the rhinestone-framed reading glasses on the end of her nose. “I know you’re going to feel warm in a wig, hon, but that’s what you need. With some of the girls, I can pile up their hair and pull off an Audrey Hepburn, but yours isn’t long enough.” She pinned a redheaded ponytail wig onto my head.

  Ms. Lottie also made me wash off my makeup so she could start over. I asked her if she was doing this because the casting company in charge of the band wanted me to look tasteful. She was way too polite to be baited into admitting my look was the stuff of her nightmares, though. She said the company wanted me to look “period,” with my makeup redone in soft tones that played up my natural beauty (according to her gracious bullshit). With a chiffon scarf knotted around my neck above the starched white collar of my fitted blouse, I eased out of Ms. Lottie’s chair, my thigh still sore from the wreck last Saturday night. I went out to meet Elvis.

  His singing voice and guitar picking were tolerable. He imitated the King pretty well, too, but he was ten years too old to be Elvis in his twenties. I wondered what he was doing here in the middle of the day on a Tuesday. Shouldn’t he be working at his real job? This gig sure wasn’t paying his rent. Usually people figured that out by his age.

  The other guitar player rounding out our trio was an elderly man I’d already met, Mr. Crabtree. I would never know all the professional musicians in Nashville because there was a constant influx of new ones trying to make it big. But I’d played the bluegrass circuit long enough that I’d encountered Mr. Crabtree over and over. He was also my granddad’s friend. My granddad must have used his connections in the music industry to get a job for his poker buddy and his screwed-up granddaughter.

  I hadn’t played in a wandering band of minstrels like this before, but I wasn’t nervous. I was well trained in jumping into a group and blending in with no rehearsal. My parents had dragged my sister, Julie, and me to every bluegrass festival in the country for as long as I could remember. They’d taught innocent, impressionable young me to say yes anytime some crazy lady asked me to get onstage with her. I didn’t always know who the adult musicians were at the festivals, but my parents did, and the crazy lady might turn out to be Reba McEntire about to discover Julie and me and propel us to the fame and fortune that had been so elusive our whole young lives. Yes yes yes!

  Besides being an old hand (or hack) onstage, I knew just about every song there was. The ones I didn’t . . . well, there were basically three chords in all of popular music—major one, major four, and major five—with an occasional minor six or (gasp!) crazy-ass minor three thrown in to get everybody titillated. The solo break came at the same place in every song. The fiddle took a solo first, guitar second. I always knew what key we were in. I could predict where the music was going. Anyway, the audience didn’t notice mistakes. They noticed hesitation.

  Or would they? I’d been told that some days in this job, I would be traveling with a band to a local shop’s grand opening or car dealership’s sale extravaganza. Today we were staying right here in the vast shopping mall, playing country standards as a gimmick to attract customers. I doubted anybody on a mission to buy a new bathing suit for the summer would give the Elvis-impersonator band a second glance.

  But a gig was a gig, and I would do my best. I played a few chords with Elvis and Mr. Crabtree outside Foot Locker to make sure we were in tune. From there we jumped right into one rockabilly song after another. As I’d predicted, it was a lot like being onstage with Some Lady Who Might Be Reba McEntire but Wasn’t. I took the melody in the intro, then backed out and played easy staccato chords on the upbeat while Elvis sang and swayed his pelvis and hopped around on the industrial tile floor. In the chorus, Mr. Crabtree sang the lower harmony and I took the higher one. During the second verse, I went back to staccato chords, and I added a lilting string line in the third verse for variety. We sounded like we’d been playing together for years. Musicians and their instruments and vocals were interchangeable building blocks in a song, with no soul at all.

  I hadn’t allowed myself to think too hard about it, but I realized now that I’d hoped playing with other people again would lift me out of the funk where I’d spent the past year. Instead, I was going in the opposite direction, backing farther into my cave. I was finally playing in a band again. But without Julie, the magic was gone.

  If she were here, I would glance over at her when she missed a note, see the shocked look on her face, and cringe to keep from cracking up at her. We would roll our eyes at the questionable fashion choices of the customers strolling by. We would tease each other about any cute guy who seemed to notice us. Our mom would scold us later for acting unprofessional. After she stormed off angry, our dad would buy us an ice cream as a consolation prize. Between bites we would tell him what had been so funny, and he would laugh with us and recount something that had happened to him while playing in a Knoxville biker bar in the early 1990s.

  I had thought I missed performing, but it was my family I missed. And since they’d left me behind, music was nothing for me now.

  Of course, I had no ties to the real world anymore, so nobody noticed I was having a tragic epiphany. Elvis and Mr. Crabtree rocked on blissfully, oblivious to the fact that, during their fun rockabilly beat, my heart was breaking for the umpteenth time. The salesmen dressed like referees came out of Foot Locker to stare at us.

  A couple of girls I’d seen at school slipped out of the salon next door, showing each other their freshly painted nails. I did my best to duck my head while keeping my chin in place on my fiddle. We weren’t friends, but I was that girl everyone vaguely knew—didn’t she have a younger sister who was about to become famous?—and nobody was friends with. I was afraid they would text everybody in their contact lists that they’d seen me. It would get back to my ex, Toby. He would bring his friends here to sneer at me. But the girls never stopped for our music o
r looked up at us. I might as well have been a mannequin in the window at Abercrombie.

  It was two thirty on a Tuesday, a dead time at the mall, and no other customers passed us. Thinking we might have better luck if we moseyed into the next wing, we set up camp between Victoria’s Secret and Sephora and played a couple more tunes. This time a few shoppers actually paused to listen. They gave us a smattering of applause. They heard happiness in our music where I didn’t.

  Then, as we moved toward the food court, Elvis leaned over and asked me what I had on under my circle skirt—if it was like a Scotsman and his kilt.

  I was not going commando. I was wearing black lace panties. They’d become my habit in the last year, mostly to scare the hell out of my mother on the rare occasion when she was home to do the laundry, but partly so I’d look sexy and tough when I stumbled into a party and ended up behind the garage with a boy. It wasn’t much of a goal, but it was all I had just then. Very little got me off anymore. Being alone with a hot guy at least made me feel something.

  If Elvis had been a cute boy at school in years gone by and he’d asked me a lewd question like this, I would have giggled in embarrassment. If he’d been a cute boy at school in the past year, I would have come on to him and called his bluff. But the closer Elvis got to me, the older he seemed. I could tell from the uneven texture under the layer of makeup Ms. Lottie had applied that his tan skin was weathered. His black hair was thinning on top, with not quite enough to fill out his pompadour.

  My feet ached from standing in high heels, my bruised thigh throbbed, and I was in no mood to be toyed with. I told Elvis that under my circle skirt, there was a Glock. (There wasn’t. I was just a skinny girl with a punky screw-you haircut and no balls at all.)

  Elvis was not dissuaded. As we chose our place with our backs to a blank wall between Baskin-Robbins and McDonald’s, he murmured, “Pull up your skirt and let me see it.”

  My first thought was for Mr. Crabtree, who stood close enough to us that he should have overheard what Elvis said. He would think it was my fault that Elvis wanted to see the imaginary gun in my undies. He would report this to my granddad at the next poker game. My granddad would tell my parents, who would basically disown me by refusing to pay my tuition to Vanderbilt. That was their deal with me for the rest of the summer. If I wanted them to fork over tuition and room and board as they’d always promised, I had to stay out of trouble and avoid doing anything that would embarrass Julie.

  I wasn’t supposed to draw attention to myself in any way, and that specifically included playing fiddle with a group. But I hoped I was safe from my parents’ wrath when they found out about this gig. It had been my granddad’s idea, not mine. He’d promised to take the blame if my parents got angry and swore to withhold my tuition, and to help me convince them to let me keep the job for the whole summer. I’d been pretty mopey yesterday—Memorial Day. Toby and his friends had spent the holiday at the lake while I moved my shit from my parents’ house to my granddad’s. I figured my granddad had gotten me the gig because, after one day with me, he wanted his guitar shop and his privacy back in the afternoons.

  I guess he didn’t buy my parents’ reasoning behind keeping me away from gigs, and neither did I. Julie’s record company was afraid of a public relations disaster if the tabloids found out she’d been signed to the label while the older sister she’d always played with had been locked out. That wasn’t the shining success story girls wanted to read about in Seventeen. Personally, I didn’t think the press would care what Julie’s loser sister did with her afternoons. For Julie’s future fans, I would never rise to the level of importance of Julie’s boyfriends or Julie’s clothes or Julie’s hairdo.

  But as Elvis sneered at me, I realized this was a situation ripe for a tabloid sensation and a major embarrassment to Julie’s baby career. If Mr. Crabtree told my granddad what was happening here, my granddad would pull the plug on me and maybe even confess to my parents about this gig. The potential story of Julie Mayfield’s older sister dressing up like a mental patient and threatening Elvis with a Glock . . . that might upset my parents enough to cut me off. They were dead serious about Julie’s success. Mine was expendable.

  As I turned around to sneak a peek at Mr. Crabtree, though, I realized I’d panicked for nothing. Judging from his facial expression, he hadn’t heard a word that had passed between Elvis and me. In his tacky trousers and shirt and tie—which could have been his original clothes from the fifties for all I knew—he gazed out at the crowd, half smiling, like a golden retriever waiting for his master to throw a ball.

  Reading my mind, Elvis informed me, “He’s deaf. I can say anything I want to you.”

  I felt my face flush with anger at Elvis’s challenge. The food court wasn’t crowded, but the few patrons close by would overhear if I laid into him like he deserved. I squared my shoulders, glared at him, and said quietly but firmly, “No, you can’t say anything you want to me. I’m a professional musician, and I won’t put up with it.”

  Elvis straightened to his full height, reminding me how much bigger than me he was. His nostrils flared as he spat, “Oh, you’re the talent now? Let me tell you something, toots. I’m the talent here. You’re in a band with Elvis. I’m not in a band with . . . I don’t even know who the fuck you’re supposed to be. Can’t help falling in love.”

  I was used to boys who seemed willing enough to put their hands all over me, then told me off when I didn’t play submissive girlfriend with them like they wanted. It had happened all year. It had happened with Toby.

  I was not used to a middle-aged man who asked what was under my skirt, then told me off when I didn’t play submissive girlfriend, then declared his love for me.

  Soon enough, I was glad I’d stood there with my hands on my hips, bow in one hand and fiddle in the other, rather than responding to him in a way that would have embarrassed us both. He wasn’t declaring his love for me, duh. He was naming our next tune. He repeated very loudly to Mr. Crabtree, “ ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ in D.” Mr. Crabtree obediently strummed the D-major chord, setting the rhythm. Elvis joined in with his own guitar. As far as he was concerned, my opinion and my anger didn’t matter. I was dismissed.

  I joined in, too, doing my part for the intro, bowing the lush melody in the key of D-sharp instead of D. It took a lot of concentration for me to sound this bad, because I had a sensitive ear. I made sure my fiddle line was the loveliest tune the crowd had ever heard. My instrument had a mellow tone. My fingers on the strings created a wide vibrato that only seemed easy. It just so happened that every note I played was a half step up from the key Elvis and Mr. Crabtree were playing in.

  And that made Elvis sound like a train wreck. The people at the table closest to us, teenagers munching soft pretzels, got up suddenly and took their trays to the other side of the food court.

  Between verses, Elvis slid close to me with a tight smile and whispered in my ear, “We’re in D.”

  In the middle of my solo line, I pulled my fiddle away from my chin to say, “And I’m in D-sharp.” I tucked my fiddle under my chin again and resumed my soaring fiddle line, taking extra care to make it a Grand Ole Opry–worthy performance, only gratingly off-key. As Elvis and Mr. Crabtree continued their accompaniment on their guitars a half step too low, every nerve in my body vibrated with the need to tune down.

  I tried to get my mind off it by gazing out at the audience, such as it was. A few customers remained at tables at the far edge of the food court, involved in their own conversations, not even glancing at us across the atrium. Maybe they were so tone-deaf that they hadn’t noticed anything wrong. More likely they were just here to shop for new shades, man, and our performance meant nothing to them, our drama less than nothing.

  My heartbeat slowed to normal. I’d returned to the mind-set that had helped me survive the past year, in which I acknowledged how little I mattered and how little anybody cared. When the tortuous song ended and Elvis stepped close to tower over me ag
ain, I faced him with a smug expression, batting my eyelashes sarcastically, ready for anything.

  “You’re going to get us both fired,” he growled under his breath.

  “Only if we keep accidentally getting our wires crossed,” I said in an innocent tone to go with my chiffon scarf and my ponytail. “That won’t happen, because you’re going to apologize to me.”

  His lips parted. His eyebrows shot up. Suddenly, despite Ms. Lottie’s makeup, he looked nothing like Elvis. He was an older man I’d just met. I knew zero about his real life, his motivations, or how far I’d pushed him.

  He seethed, “I will report you.”

  “I don’t fucking care,” I lied. It was important that I said fuck because he’d used it first. I had to show him I wasn’t scared of him. But I was beginning to be. I was such a wuss that I couldn’t even hold his angry gaze. My eyes darted to Mr. Crabtree to make sure he hadn’t heard me say the F-word in the middle of the mall.

  Mr. Crabtree still smiled out at the food court. “How about ‘Love Me Tender’ next?” he asked, turning to Elvis. “Such a pretty tune.”

  Sure, a pretty tune, I supposed. The scales and arpeggios progressed from major one to major five like a thousand other rockabilly ballads. The song stood out solely because the rote major four in the middle had been replaced with the rogue madness of a major two. And Mr. Crabtree couldn’t even hear it. After years of work as a musician, losing his hearing must have been a nightmare for him. He hardly seemed to notice. Maybe the change had been so gradual, the letdown so gentle, that he’d landed in a soft place, and his memory of one, two, five, and one was as good as the real thing. It was only when the rug was jerked out from under you that you fell on your ass.

  After that, Elvis and I both stood down. I didn’t screw up another song for him. He didn’t say another word to me, but the tension between us was frightening. I felt more awake than I had for a whole year, and not in a good way. Before, my school day and an unhappy night at home had seemed like I was trapped in a losing battle. I was outnumbered and unarmed. Now I was still outnumbered—the whole world was against me—but I’d discovered I could use music as a weapon. I could at least have the satisfaction of giving one attacker a bloody nose before the pack of them cut me down.

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