*Over the course of writing Justice in a Bottle, there were many edits and cuts and rewrites. From time to time I’ll post bonus chapters that never made the final cut (all mistakes are my own, these have never been through edits). We’ll call this one, The Audition.
It was a beautiful spring Friday in early May. Earnest and I walked over the bridge, towards my building where the trees were exploding with bloom. The sky was a vivid blue, and the afternoon breeze kept things comfortable. I’d been doing a lot of thinking about the old man’s life. What he’d been through. The wasted years. What could have been. But now–and it must have been spring talking–after securing the old man an audition, I was thinking about new beginnings. Second chances. Making the most of what you had.
The blues was going to make Mary proud.
Mr. Melvin answered the door after the first knock. His eyes bounced from me to Earnest. “I take it you told him?”
“Yep, he knows.”
“Well,” he said, fixing his hat and grabbing his old scuffed guitar case, “I guess I’m just an old man with a guitar and no stories to tell.”
“Oh, you’ve got plenty of stories, we’ll just call them songs now.”
We started for Crawford Hall, me walking between my two outcasts. One with his eye on the trash, the other with his guitar. Heads turned and stares lingered, but Mr. Melvin kept his face straight ahead, fixed on our destination just down the block. All the attention made it feel like we were part of something special. And it was special, Mr. Melvin was going to get a shot at open mic night, playing the blues for folks on Friday nights. If all went well, that was.
“So, you nervous?” Earnest asked and I elbowed him in his skinny little arm. That boy, I swear, hardly ever a word out of him and now he pipes up with that?
Mr. Melvin tightened his grasp on the guitar case. “Well, the way I see it, I’ve only got one person to impress and she’s walking right beside me. Once I go down there and play, it doesn’t matter who likes it or not, the main thing is that we’re even,” he said, glancing my way. “Right?”
“Right,” I said, taking his arm in mine.
Willis was out front, leaning against a column and smoking on a cigarette. He looked up and shook his head with a laugh. We must have looked like quite a sight, me and my misfits.
“So, this is the world-renowned Howling Earl Melvin?” he asked, looking Mr. Melvin up and down. Mr. Melvin looked at me and mouthed, “Howling?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
Willis stubbed out his smoke. “Well, let’s get started, I only have a few minutes, got a gig over in Glendale tonight. You know, I dee-jay parties, school functions, weddings and stuff,” he said, like we were going to hire him. I scrunched up my nose as Earnest and I started through a cloud of smoke up the steps. But Mr. Melvin didn’t budge.
He nodded slowly. “I reckon so,” he said, looking over the old building. “Lots of fine musicians have come through these doors. Did I ever tell you I once saw Muddy Waters here?”
Earnest and I both sighed.
“Honestly,” he said, holding a hand up like he was taking an oath.
“Are you stalling or lying? Because it’s kinda hard to tell the difference.”
Mr. Melvin closed his eyes. He looked so fragile out there, holding his guitar. Like a nice antique full of dust and scratches that you never noticed until you saw it in the sunlight.
“I’m stalling I reckon, because I did see Muddy Waters here. That was the night I decided I wanted to play music. But then…”
“Well,” Earnest said, his voice high and happy. “Now it’s your chance.”
I smiled at Earnest. Much better.
Mr. Melvin said something to himself, or maybe to Mary, then he took a breath and climbed the steps.
The place smelled like a stale party. It was dark and the floor was scuffed and marked and clung sticky to our steps. The old brick walls were smoothed from the thick coats of many years of paint. Willis hopped up on the stage, making adjustments to the lights.
“Okay Earl, take a seat up here and let me hear what you got.”
Earnest and I settled into some chairs near the back. You could see the newer bricks where windows used to be, long ago and the old place hadn’t seen daylight ever since. Once the door shut, besides those stage lights casting down on a single chair, the only bit of light came from a side door to the kitchen where I could see beer boxes scattered around. Yikes. Mom would kill me if she knew where I was.
Mr. Melvin staggered cautiously up the steps, where he took a seat. It might as well have been the gallows by the ghastly look on his face. I said a quick prayer as he unclasped the hooks on his guitar case and it echoed through the empty hall like a gunshot. Mr. Melvin coughed some as he got situated. I looked over to Willis, who let out a big old yawn. This was it.
The worst thing that could happen would be for Mr. Melvin to fail, after I talked him into getting up there and putting himself out there for the world. And that’s when it hit me right smack on the forehead. Just like me with writing.
What if I thought he was good but no one else did? Just like what if Mrs. Womack thought I was great but no one else saw it? I’d convinced Mr. Melvin to leave the safety of his apartment and expose himself. Now I had to do the same thing with the paper.
Mr. Melvin tuned the guitar, a few shaky strums that sounded a little bit off. Earnest cut a sidelong glance my way but I refused to turn away. Come on, old man, I was thinking, tell your story.
His finger found their place and he got it going. I clasped my hands together and rocked to the edge of my seat, hoping and praying that Willis would feel what I felt when he played that guitar.
Then the foot started. Tapping and testing, then stomping powerfully on that stage in time as he started swaying and his fingers found their magic. He was feeling his groove.
You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley
Well you gotta go by yourself
Well there ain’t nobody else gonna go there for you
You gotta go there by yourself
His voice boomed, filling out the walls and the cracks in the bricks. I looked over where Willis straightened out his neck. I grabbed Earnest’s arm.
He was good. No, he was better than good. He was magnificent.
Now mother walked that lonesome valley
Now mother walked, she walked it by herself
Chills raked down my spine. Mr. Melvin closed his eyes and his foot hit the floor like a kick drum. He plucked the life out of that guitar. And it was hard to believe—even as I was watching it happen—that it was just a man, a guitar, and a chair up on that stage. Because the sound was big, bigger than the stage. Larger than life. He was something special up there. And Willis saw it too.
When he finished Lonesome Valley, he opened his eyes, returning from wherever he’d been. He looked like he was stepping off a train after an all-night trip.
Willis nodded, ran a hand over that little patch of hair on his head. “Well, uh, wow. I think we got something here.”
“Got something? I’d say you got a whole lot there.”
I spun around at the sound of another voice. A deep, rich voice. The singer of the Crawdaddy Blues Band, the one who’d been setting up the other day. He walked with a swagger. It didn’t hurt that he was really good looking too.
“Hey Vince, what are you doing hanging around?”
“I came to pick up a few things. Who’s this?” he asked without looking away from Mr. Melvin, up there fiddling with a fret on his guitar.
“This here is Howling Earl Melvin. You remember? The one our little manager friend was talking about the other day.”
Vince set his nice brown eyes on me and flashed a smile. “Oh yes, Earl Melvin. Miss, you’ll have to forgive me for forgetting your name.”
I’d never told him my name. Not that that made any difference to me. “Nita Simmons,” I said, as we shook hands. My face wen sun-surface hot when I heard Earnest shuffling behind me. “Oh, and this is Earnest,” I said, waving my hand back his way.
“Nice to meet you.” He looked back towards the stage. “Say, Uh, Mr. Melvin, do you mind doing another song?”
Mr. Melvin shook his head and looked at Willis. I recognized that I-don’t-trust-anyone glare clouding over his face. He was going to have to work on his social skills.
Vince cleared his throat. “I’m uh, Vince Rice, lead singer of The Crawdaddy Blues Band. We play here a lot, and a few gigs around the state. We uh, we’re looking for some real authentic blues acts to open for us next Saturday night, and from what I just heard, your sound is perfect.”
“They don’t play here enough,” Willis griped. “Now that they’re big time.”
Vince chuckled. I looked at Earnest. Was this really happening? Was Mr. Melvin auditioning for a real gig? Mr. Melvin muttered something but before he could blow his chance I hopped up out of my seat.
“Um, Mr. Rice?”
“Call me Vince.”
“Vince, do you mind if I have a word with Mr. Melvin?”
Vince aimed his knee-buckling smile at me. “Be my guest, he’s your client.”
I rushed up the steps, feeling dizzy under the lights on the stage. Mr. Melvin looked at me with relief in his eyes.
“Hey, Mr. Melvin. What do you think?”
“I think this is crazy. I’m seventy-two years old.”
“I know but this is your dream.”
“I’m too old for dreams, Nita,” he said, his eyes cutting offstage to the shadows where Vince and Willis were joking around about something. But up there, Mr. Melvin’s whole life was at stake.
“Look, Mr. Melvin, I know you’re afr—um, nervous. But this is it. This is what you’ve been waiting for all your life. Age doesn’t matter. You have a story to tell. A real story. It’s time to move on from the past and make new memories.”
He laughed, then reached in his pocket and fished out a handkerchief. A shaky dab on the forehead. I knew the feeling, like when you get up there in front of the whole school for a talent show. Maybe it’s something you never outgrow.
“I don’t know Nita, what if they’re wrong? What if I’m not good enough?”
“I know you’re good enough,” I nodded to Willis and Vince, “They know you’re good enough. And even if they didn’t, who cares? Do you want to keep wishing you’d done something or do you want to make it happen?’
Wow, I thought. Maybe I should listen to my own pep talks sometime. Mr. Melvin stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket. Willis coughed. “Hey guys, not trying to be a jerk here but I got somewhere to be. Can we do this?”
I looked at my client. “I think this calls for some John Lee Hooker.”
The smile that spread across that old bird’s face could have lit the way to dawn. “All right Nita, John Lee it is.”
I stepped down from the stage, and Mr. Melvin’s foot got back to tapping and I knew things were going to be alright. But as he started singing, and his voice knocked along the bricks, I just had to stop.
Everybody, Everybody, wanna know my story…
I managed to get my head turned around. The chills returned, settling in comfortably on my arms and legs. His voice and that guitar, the foot-tapping soul in the old music hall. It was enough to grab the four of us by the shoulders and shake us into believing Howling Earl Melvin was the best you ever heard. And boy did he have a story to tell.
Mary would have been so proud.
Justice in a Bottle by Pete Fanning Available March, 2020