OPEN MIC SURGERY
“I don't think your ability to fight has anything to do with how big you are. It's to do with
how much anger is in you.”—Amy Winehouse.
OPEN MIC SURGERY
Jo Fury slid the guitar case from her shoulder like a miscarried weapon. She stared at the fresh canvas on the easel. It was 2 a.m., and that much closer to Monday. Derek laid down the brush he’d been cleaning. The air smelled sharply of linseed oil and turpentine.
“It’s nice to make even the drunks clap some time,” she sighed.
“Bad night?” her husband asked.
“First guy on was a put-down spewing stand-up,” she replied. “When isn’t it?”
“When it isn’t,” he said. “Tea?”
“Yes, please.” Jo, or Joanna as she had been known as a child, unzipped the case and removed the Gibson. She set the guitar on its stand and followed Derek to the kitchen.
“You know the guy I like? Tom?”
“The one who writes with his wife?” Derek asked.
“Yeah. Anyway, one of the musos got up for his turn, some electronica dude. I said, ‘Why do I think this one’s gonna be hurty?’ And Tom said: ‘The vest with the wires, maybe?’”
Derek laughed and poured the tea.
“Then, you know that little bald-headed guy in the business suit? The one I told you about who always shows up with a guitar strapped to his back and never performs?” Derek nodded. “He hit on me.”
“Poor guy. What did you say to him?”
“I told him ‘We’re done, buddy.’”
Derek shook his head. Jo was tiny but she was tougher than nails.
Standing before the easel again, she admitted it wasn’t such a bad night. “I played three songs. Then Tom played a couple of new ones, good songs. You know, old school.”
Derek placed a mug of green tea in Jo’s hands. “Like you.”
“Well, not exactly,” she sighed and then grinned. “But yeah, like me.” Her sighs were like clouds—cirrus he guessed—that lingered in her expression before they dispersed. The last vaporous filament disappeared with her smile.
“This is new.” Jo peered above the mug to the large familiar-sized canvas covered with a still wet ground.
Derek Challenger had been working on these paintings for a long time, some eleven or twelve years. He’d lost his gallery representation when the city lost the twin towers, but not his self-possessed determination to tell this story of a simple man, almost embryonic, in a landscape sometimes chaotic and warlike. There were other times when the figure coupled in a tender embrace, leaving the viewer to determine where one began and another left off. Often the figure was alone. Jo imagined where he would place the gold leaf that appeared in every one of these canvases, the leitmotif of sanctuary discovered on the horizon, or just around the impenetrable mountain or peeking through an ominous forest of unforgiving trees. Derek saw light beyond a struggle that was sometimes overwhelming. He worked against the ground color. A field of Naples Yellow and Titanium White meant a darker, somber, angst-ridden landscape would eventually rise to the surface of the canvas. Every painting held a solution, though, evidenced by the gold leaf that awakened the figure when he recognized a sign.
Jo pressed the tip of her index finger into wet Burnt Umber and Payne’s Gray. She knew this painting would not be about treachery; that it would grow into a cloudless landscape flooded with light. The pilgrim would find progress less fraught than in other tableaus.
They’d met in the mid 80s. It was Jo’s last night in London, her final night with the band, Whores Of Fabulon, as it turned out. Derek spotted her in a pub in Kentish Town, drawn to her deceptively delicate frame, her China White face that glowed under a jet-black frame of hair. She, in turn, watched his dark and purposeful hand, like a seasoned oak leaf, fall gently to the bar and point to a full pint of Guinness; an invitation that she grabbed like a life preserver.
Jo was compelled by his story of a disturbing upbringing in Brixton. Derek’s parents, Caribbean immigrants, had married while his father was in prison. He was an only child who’d left school at 15 after his mother died. Derek never spoke of his father. He never again mentioned his childhood, leaving an abstract impression on Jo that, like his canvases then were darkly layered, bleak and cracked like the surface of some evil planet. He was surprised when she revealed a suburban background of modest comfort, doting parents and that she was a natural honey-colored blonde.
Right after 9/11 something in Derek shifted. He’d been well represented at a gallery in Chelsea, but the sales suddenly stopped. The art-buying world—a fickle mistress—was more stressful for Jo than the occasional groupies Derek bedded.
They lived in a pre-war building uptown on West End Avenue. When the recession hit and little luxuries started falling, like plaster from an old ceiling, Jo went back to teaching full time with a resounding commitment that surprised them both.
It seemed to Jo a relief for Derek when he’d lost the studio on west 22nd Street. He’d discovered gold leaf and it was as if he had been pricked all over. Luminosity sprang from him like light through a colander. He began the series she saw before her. He had not exactly lost the brooding temperament so much as come to terms with it. For all his blackness, he became lighter.
Jo Fury, still pale and now platinum haired, was drawn to the dark, claimed it was a fucked up world so she might as well get used to it. They were perfect for each other.
They managed. An ample living room became his studio. She had already settled her music into the second bedroom. Years ago, they’d faced the room with bookshelves, now slouched under the weight of voracious readers. She had her guitars—a not too shabby collection—recording equipment she could handle, a laptop with Garage Band and a velvet, eggplant-colored couch—her elegant ruin—which she sank into when she had a steaming headache. Her best lines came to her then. Half of the room was taken up with his finished canvases. She didn’t mind, didn’t need much. She rather enjoyed having Derek around. The temptation to stray seemed to be held in check since he no longer kept the studio in Chelsea. She was glad he was removed from the noxious air. He was older. They both were. And he cooked.
Every day for the past few years an apartment was being renovated somewhere in the building. Derek and Jo were among the last of the holdouts, renters, who by virtue of dwindling funds and rent control, stayed the course. A cavernous, unfurnished lobby became a showpiece and the sleepy-eyed men at the door were uniformed, made to look smart when they directed guests to a recent sign-in sheet. Six floors above them and closer to the clouds lived a beloved icon—a living legend. The folksinger had resisted the lure of ownership of her rent-controlled apartment until she’d looked at both sides and decided she liked the other side so much she bought the adjoining apartment as well.
Jo studied the empty mug. What she really wanted—needed—was another blast of Stoli. At the occasional open mic, she blew back the white feather with a hastily downed shot of vodka: on the rocks, straight up, or good and dirty in a martini. To appease the goddess of must-really-be-healthier, she’d drink it with cranberry juice. Jo deliberated. Bells would ring much too soon. Morning would come before she was ready, when a classroom of ninth graders went straight for the jugular. It would be much more difficult with a hangover. There were only a few more days before summer reprieve. She cracked an ice tray.
“I’m going to bed love,” Derek said quietly. “You know, you have a particular look after you’ve done one of those open mics.”
“I do?” She lowered the glass. “Good or bad?”
“Good,” he said.
Jo sipped her drink. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like my chest is somehow exposed and my heart is being massaged. Even on those crappy nights, even when the talent is less than stellar and the audience sucks.”
“Sounds like open heart surgery,” he laughed.
“Well, it is kind of like that.” She leaned in for a kiss. “One of these days teaching’s gonna give me a heart attack.”
“I’ll set your alarm,” he said. “Go easy on that.” A trace of turpentine clung to her fingertips as she lifted the chilled glass.
Flushing was a long subway ride from the Upper West Side. Jo hesitated at the door to her first class, quietly repeating her mantra” “Ow, ow, ow,” she groaned. On the other side lay a roomful of ninth graders who could not care less about English grammar. They smelled summer. The only thing standing between them and freedom was the pale blonde teacher in an overcrowded class of Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and Asians. But she loved every one of them; their defiance that thrummed like nervy chords. In a way they had become their own songs and she, their conductor. They came from all over, more so since they closed Jamaica High. Many were low-level learners, and she had a disproportionate number of special needs kids in each of her five classes to add to chaotic numbers. No child left behind? Not only were they left behind the breadcrumbs on the path were swept clean.
A voice cheered behind her. “Only two more days!” She turned to Kevin, a fellow teacher, her partner in pain.
“Escape from Alcatraz,” she croaked.
“Rough night?” he quipped as he strode past her in the hallway. “Don’t give them any rope.”
Jo straightened up, put on her teacher face, and shouted after him. “I know, I know. Want to get rid of half the teachers in this city? Make ’em pee in a cup.”
Finally, she left a windowless classroom that was 90 plus degrees, hotter than the outside air. Heading for a salon in midtown on the East Side she texted Derek as she hurried into the subway: “Home 4 dinner. Getting my blonde on!”
Later, when they’d finished their meal, he asked how her day had gone. Jo admitted that she was a bit testy with the kids. She, too, was looking forward to the summer. They all needed a break. For a treat she’d asked her last class to bring in their favorite talisman. No cheating, she told them. Don’t look up the word. She expected most, if they understood the word at all, would bring objects that would not make it through a metal detector.
“One girl got it right, sort of,” Jo sighed.
Derek ran his hands through her long, freshly done hair. “Nice. So what do you mean by sort of?”
She thought for a moment. “Oh, she brought in a dream catcher thing.”
“Cool,” he said.
Jo huffed. “It is not cool. Those things are bogus, never a Native American tradition.”
Derek eyed her warily. She had her ‘get a life’ look on. “So, you said?”
“I told her it was string.” She eyed his grimace. “I’ll teach ’em the word sarcasm tomorrow.”
Derek began clearing the table. She studied his muscular arms, which were the color of polished mahogany. She pressed his hand lightly. She felt the coarse evidence of turps in the cracked skin around his fingers, on his knuckles. The proof of his passion lay embedded in the cuticles of his broad fingernails.
There were going to be more layoffs. “You’re one they like though,” Derek said. “I mean you’re a great teacher.”
She drained a glass of Pinot Grigio, her drink of atonement. “Are you nuts?” Derek had heard all this before, but she couldn’t stop herself. “More than ten years in a system that doesn’t value experience. It’s all about the fucking numbers. They can get one-and-a-half new teachers for what they pay me, and they won’t squawk about anything that is asked of them, legal or otherwise. Union? What union! That’s how it is. Look, there are crappy, lazy teachers just like there are crappy, lazy everything else, but those are the teachers you hear and read about. Thanks Mike!”
He reached for her empty glass. “They couldn’t replace you with one-and-a-half of anything.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Basically, I can expect to be tortured by administration until I can’t take it anymore.”
“That would be terrible for your students,” he said and then asked: “Tea?”
“Uhn, no.” She surrendered the empty wine glass. “Is there any more of the white in the fridge?”
In a few more days Jo would devote herself to the music. Derek would get a respite from rants about a broken system and how the current fixes don’t fix anything; how the disorganization went all the way up to the state level, for fuck’s sake. She was going to book all the open mics she could get into, maybe even get some solo gigs.
She’d learned to play guitar as a kid and began writing songs when she was a teenager. Her parents, both teachers, encouraged her. They were only slightly bemused when she threw down the guitar for electric bass. She left the good girl behind in Great Neck and took a new bad ass self to Hunter College. By the time she graduated she knew the inside of every downtown bar and music venue. She practically lived at CBGB’s. Girl bands formed, dissolved and re-formed around her until the Whores Of Fabulon clicked their leather booted-and-chained heels and tore up a stage. She died her hair black—they all did. And they painted lips and fingernails to match in a head-to-toe allegiance to hardcore. A small but possessed following clamored for Jo Fury’s songs. Soon they were opening for Goth bands like Maria Ex Communicata and Amazon Ratcatchers.
By the time she met Derek the lead guitar in her band was smashed all the time. The drummer’s panting pursuit of Jo went unrequited. They were angry, frustrated and wearied by the road, torn apart by drugs, infighting and feckless management. Sire Records got tired of chasing them. Jo was eager to return to a burgeoning hardcore scene, bands like Bad Brains, Reagan Youth, and Agnostic Front. She was done with women. She was over the bass. Derek wanted to live in New York.
They found their way with each other through sex and dissension, stubbornness and forgiving. They married at City Hall. INS was the hassle they endured for Derek’s green card but the resistance they were expecting from an agency keen to ferret out the fraud in inter-racial marriages never happened. They were approved at their first interview. Stunned, they got up to leave. The examiner shared her personal opinion, that having observed them in the waiting room she thought they bickered and laughed like an old married couple already. And then she wished them well.
After one more shot with a band called The Wrath Of Grace Jo put down her black Fender precision, thought about buying a Gibson Les Paul before boarding a Staten Island ferry and coming home a few grand poorer with a J45. For better or worse she still had chops, a strong voice. Someone once told her that her voice was like the hum of a high-tension wire just as it gets hit by lightning. That voice had served her well in a classroom vibrating from a dissonant multicultural choir.
She still listened to Joan Jett and had a soft spot for Courtney Love, but she relished Amy Winehouse. Derek’s love of jazzer’s like Pharoah Sanders, Mingus and Miles Davis was intact, but she often heard the vibes from Terrance Blanchard and Joshua Redmond coming from the redressed living room. His concentration was evident. She began writing again.
Derek had been to her gigs years ago, always visibly agitated from toxic levels of angst. Jo thought it was because he spent long hours alone in the studio. When he asked why she didn’t bring it down a bit she gave him a free pass. She began writing again and he listened when she played back each new song. They were restless melodies that he admitted stayed with him. Still, he begged off when she mentioned any open mic. How many Black men do you see at these things, he asked. And she knew what he meant. A few young men had wandered onstage, but Gangsta Rap grated on Derek’s nerves. He hated stand up comics and big guys like him were bouncers on Bleecker Street.
Jo kept at it through the summer. Guitar Bob’s on the Lower East Side, with it’s shabby décor and laid back approach to open mic, was her go to place on Saturday afternoons. She’d collect her courage under a granddaddy willow tree in the community garden across the street. Her introduction to the hip guy with the buzz cut and the vintage Ray-Bans who ran the open mic was his announcement that he’d just got back from New Orleans. A day late as it turned out, because he had been in jail. The mic rested atop a Frankenstein stand mended with the remains of more raucous evenings. By the end of the summer that venerable old bar on Avenue C would be shuttered. As much as she appreciated a good drink, replacing Guitar Bob’s with an upscale joint that prided itself on ‘artisanal’ cocktails was just ludicrous.
Unflagging, she made trips out to Queens to a tiny place called Swing Astoria. Jo winced while a mortified teen clutched her chest and stumbled through a Miley Cyrus cover. A piano player from Amsterdam sang about crying on the flo-ho-hoor, punishing the ivories. Jo found she was sandwiched between a wan hippie couple from Woodstock who sang about captive Orcas and a barely fledged white boy in a gang-style baseball cap who rapped about his girlfriend, the asshole. “This is the most bitter break up song I ever wrote in my life,” he growled. “It’s called Cyanide.” He was a hellish roadmap of tattoos, a trend Jo said no thank you to when needles meant AIDS. Nowadays she thought you might as well be wearing a suit and tie. The cafe did not serve alcohol. Hummus only went so far. And though she’d gotten a warm reception from a smoothie-drinking audience, a return trip was out of the question.
Brooklyn was the next outpost to be explored and she boarded the L train more times than she’d ever had in her life. There was Arnold’s Candy Shoppe, a ramshackle bar squatting under the BQE in Brooklyn. The performance space at the back was like the inside shell of a diner, perfect for low budget sci-fi. The cost of a drink was on the quiet side, the trilby-wearing patrons much louder. The noise didn’t really matter to Jo when she thought a performer was just ‘thinking out loud.’ She learned to bring it down with quieter delivery, made them listen to her.
She frequented an Irish Bar on Bergen. The talent was above average. The room at the back looked to be the kind of place where revolutions were planned in whiskey-drinking earnest. An impish Dubliner with a penchant for story telling kept the audience chatter to an acceptable level. Sometimes a stoop-shouldered player in a battered newsboy cap had to be helped to the mic. He brought the revolution to life in a voice curdled by age and anger when he sang about the troubles back home.
One determinedly acoustic open mic in Williamsburg was—insanely—scheduled on the same nights as a raucous pool tournament. Only that singer who managed a crashing vocal accompaniment to a PBR shout fest did not walk away from the mic defeated.
Jo hit cafes in the East Village no wider than a subway car, and throwback bars on the Bowery replete with stripper poles and bowls of popcorn she knew were a salty ruse to get her to drink more. On the Upper East Side the bars opened onto traffic’s thunderous disregard. Performers became nervy backdrops for screaming sports fans.
Soon she became a steady presence at the Flaming Tiger on Bleecker Street and every Monday night mounted the stage in her turn.
She was a long way from a guitar-punishing tantrum, but an irascible discontent still inhabited her lyrics. The world was a fucked up place. Even guitar makers like her beloved Gibson were destroying the rainforest. Worse, they were somehow allied with the damnable Tea Party. She wrote love songs too, maybe fierce, but love songs nonetheless. Lovers were comrades, albeit tender ones, in communal wars. The guitar was all the heft she needed these days. Jo sat at the bar and scribbled words on a napkin in the ruby glow of a miniature glass votive. If the phrase stuck with her until she got home she’d rustle up scrambled eggs and coffee. She’d don headphones, call up Garage Band and nurse a Bloody Mary.
Derek sometimes joined her in the kitchen. Usually she accepted the herbal tea offered, but a nightcap always followed. He asked why she had to lug the guitar everywhere; wasn’t there a communal one at any of these venues? She gagged. “Man if you did a DNA on any of those you’d have the spit and sweat of half the city on them.” He laughed and told her, whether she liked it or not, she was a long way from hardcore.
She wondered if she was losing her fun, or if, indeed she’d ever had it. She commented on the young women who wore their black hair in ponytails or a fringed bob, shiny as a vinyl record. Dressed in frocks like some latter Depression era ragamuffin, they sang songs about Christmas trees in June and putting on mittens. They had baby doll voices and Jo missed the roar.
Derek called her stories: “The Open Mic Tales.” She told him how she’d been thrown when a songwriter from Liverpool, whose casual conversation, accented with a distinctive Scouse, affected her like a shivering lullaby, until it disappeared under a wan neutrality onstage. “Mad, innit?” Derek joked.
Most of them came from somewhere else. Ohio, Colorado, Kansas, where you decide to pick up your instrument and go west or east, as long as you don’t stay at home. A lot of them announced a cd release tomorrow but had plenty to sell today.
Older performers evinced a ragged denim rock and roll and though aided by Dr. Scholl’s shock absorber inserts, still channeled their inner Bob Dylan. One night a university student from London rose to the stage and emphatically distanced himself from the London riots. “I don’t condone them,” he sniffed, and sang about student protest.
“Oh and Tom’s wife, Trix, was there tonight,” Jo piped. “She’s a hoot.”
Derek said he’d like to meet them. This was new, Jo thought, but why not?
“Sure. Usually when I run into him, she’s protesting on Wall Street or in Union Square or something.”
Jo laughed, and recalled a couple of guys that night, new to the Flaming Tiger. “When one of the them blathered about how they got their name—Clear Blue Sky, or something—Trix cracked: ‘Good thing they hadn’t seen a pile of shit that day!”
What Jo had not told Derek was that she had landed a featured solo at The Flaming Tiger. It was a few nights away. Nobody really listened to any one else at these things. Derek would be annoyed. She’d be teaching again and her rants would revert to the public school system.
“I’m back to work soon,” she said.
His surprising reaction, that she had to keep at the music no matter what, emboldened her to tell him about the gig.
“You don’t have to go—.”
“What?” Of course he was going.
Jo smirked and said if this really was like open-heart surgery, he just wanted to be there for the bad news.
“Let’s get to bed,” he soothed. He pushed her gently from the kitchen, shutting the light as they went. “The operation will be a success, love, and I’ll be there to witness the recovery.”
OPEN MIC SURGERY is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © OCTOBER 2011 REVISED December 2013