Honky-Tonk Women [story] by Margaret Fox

Shushila’s phone was an angry bee. She was waiting for the figures so she could finalise the financial statements, and get them off to the client before leaving her desk. This should have been done hours ago, but a quick check with her calculator showed the figures didn’t add up. She started to text “What part of the concept ‘balancing the books’ do you not understand?” but instead she patiently highlighted the offending lines, and sent them back. An hour later, new mistakes. Back and forth all afternoon—punctuated by anxious messages from the client. And maybe a dozen messages from Jace, whom she’d been seeing for, she stopped to count, nine months. She’d actually seen him half a dozen times, most memorably every minute of the weekend she met him in Niagara Falls, except when he was actually in front of the microphone. The rest of the relationship was texts, lots of texts. A funny exchange about the difference between dogs and cats. A rundown of all the best indie coffee shops in the city. The discovery that they shared favourite books, films, artists, which felt like some alignment of the stars. The confession that she’d been following his band on Vevo for a while before she drove down to Niagara with her roomie Barbara, and hung around for every set, waiting to be noticed.

Waiting for the folks downstairs to get the numbers to line up, waiting for the next prod from the client, she’d fielded easily as many texts from Jace. It started with “Horseshoe T, 2nite only, be my baby”. Back and forth, what time, what was the lineup, who else was going, where was he staying? (“Inside ur velvet underground”). Since the last time he’d stayed over at her place, her roomie had quit smoking. Cool with sticking my head out window, he texted. She reminded him they had a balcony. Now he wanted to know when she would get there. “Soon as I can.”

Shushila tried going around to the stage door in the alley. “I’m with Jace,” she told the bouncer, “the guitar for Ecolaylya?” The bouncer said they’d be on at 10. She tried texting Jace, was just about to wave her phone triumphantly in the bouncer’s face, when she saw it was from some guy she’d swiped right on Tinder because he had a cute dog. Apparently it was too hot in his apartment. She stuffed her phone in her jacket pocket and walked around to College Street and the front door. There was a girl sitting by herself at a table in front of the stage. “Mind if I sit here?” The girl stared at her. Shushila felt obliged to explain she’d come straight from work, gesturing at herself, head to toe. She might as well have been wearing a sign: junior tax lawyer. The girl looked like she was barely legal. She was wearing a leather jacket over a black lace bustier and some strategically placed tattoos. She had clearly not come straight from work. But she nodded.

The waiter came by, and just to show she was friendly, Shushila ordered a second for the girl (a micro-brewery pint) along with her own. The front band was setting up onstage, and the canned music was loud, but they struck up a bit of a conversation. “You here for someone?”

“Ecolaylya,” Shushila said.

The girl rolled her eyes. “Like you’re here for the whole group?”

Shushila sensed a competitive edge. She laughed nervously. “Jace is enough.”

“If you like vanilla,” the girl said.

The front band fixed the feedback, and started up. They were really loud, so there was no reason to try and keep talking. Shushila looked at the girl, who was waving her beer bottle and shaking her tits, head thrown back, eyes closed. She was probably ten years younger than Shushila, who wasn’t going to get younger and cooler. She knew what she had to offer, besides the fact that she was independent and had a good job; she had looks, she took care of herself, she was adventurous. The strategy of jumping when he whistled wasn’t the brightest idea. But she knew how it felt if you texted someone and they didn’t answer for hours. It was tricky. It would probably be a good thing for Jace to know she could stir up some attention of her own. But why should he chase if she played hard to get? He had his pick, clearly. Shushila had done her research; type in groupie, and you got a zillion blogs, complete with selfies. It was like a recipe for making yourself insecure.

Between sets, they traded names. The girl had a little trouble with Shushila. Hers was Lady Teazle, she said. She was doing English lit at Ryerson, which explained it. Sort of. She fished around in her cleavage and came up with a plastic card. “You got a laminate?”

Shushila shook her head.

“The thing is, you need to get in early,” Lady Teazle said. “The roadies are the ones who get you in, see? It’s about the look, getting their attention.”

“I was tied up at the office,” Shushila explained. “And I didn’t have time to go home and change.” Not that she had a black lace bustier and fishnet tights and over the knee high-heeled black leather boots.

“You have to be careful though, sometimes they come on to you, like they’ll only give you a laminate if you blow them.”

Shushila wanted to know what she’d had to do for her pass, but was afraid to ask. Jace had picked her out from the front of the stage, gestured her up to come dance with him. He usually made sure she could get in the back door. She’d never dealt with the roadies.

“I said to the guy, ‘Cool your jets, baby. I’m a Rock Muse. I don’t trade cards.’”

“It worked?”

“He was just trying it on.” She clinked her bottle against Shushila’s. “Don’t worry, you can come with me,” the girl said. They were buddies now.

The roadies were out on the stage, breaking down the front act’s equipment, setting up for Ecolaylya. Shushila went off to the ladies, not just because she’d had three beer, but to brush her hair and fix her makeup. She looked at herself critically in the mirror, found some dark red lipstick, and her gloss, unbuttoned her blouse a couple more, so you could see the top of her bra and the shadow of her cleavage, then for good measure took it right off and stuffed it into her purse, so the lapel of her jacket cut down across the red lace, and an inch of skin. Back at the table, she moved her chair a bit, so she caught some of the light that spilled from the stage. The other band members were out, tuning, talking to each other, flicking the microphones. Jace came out last, tight black leather pants, a leather jacket, armbands, tattoos, heavy eye makeup. There was some screaming from the audience. Shushila sat up straighter, to make sure he noticed her. She kept her eyes on him, did her own version of dancing in her seat. The set seemed weirdly long. She was sorry she’d drunk so much beer—her bladder was uncomfortably full, but she couldn’t just get up and walk out in the middle.

Finally Jace was whispering huskily into the mike about taking a little break, and then he jumped down from the stage, and came right over to their table. A waiter brought him a chair, which he turned backwards and straddled, and a beer. He called Shushila baby, pulled her chair up to his, gave her a deep kiss, but he had an eye on Lady Teazle, and made a point of introducing her to the drummer. Soon they were back onstage for another long set, and Jace dedicated a song to his beautiful muse. No names mentioned.

Then it was last call, and they paid their tab and gathered up their things, stood laughing and fixing their makeup in the crazily crowded washroom, and threaded their way backstage. Jace was leaning in the doorway of the dressing room, one arm raised, beer in hand, over the head of a girl who was looking up adoringly at him, while he looked adoringly down her cleavage. Take a deep breath, she told herself, it’s not like he has to go hunting, they just throw themselves at him. Lady Teazle put her arm around Shushila’s shoulder, and it felt good to have a little solidarity. She took a step forwards towards Jace, but Lady T was pulling her right on past, waving at him as she went. Shushila looked at her.

“Payday’s all in the green room,” the girl said. “They don’t rate the dressing rooms yet.” Jace had pulled his eyes out of the cleft they’d fallen into, took in that it was Shushila and Lady Teazle, waved them towards him, but Lady T just said, “Hey,” and kept going, pulling Shushila along with her.

“I told Jace I’d…” Shushila started, but Lady T gave her a look.

“You didn’t think I was into the guy, did you? I am so over ego-stroking. I don’t bother with the ones who are older than Jesus,” Lady Teazle said. “I mean, they have nowhere to go but down, do they? Not that your friend was Billie Joe Armstrong, whatever he thinks. It’s the newbies you want. The whole thing is still a turn on for them, they don’t take a girl for granted, they haven’t had time to go in and out of rehab, and face it, they’re hotter.” She pushed open the green room door, and the music swelled and enveloped them.

Shushila ignored the messages from Jace, leaving her phone in her purse except to tweet some pictures of herself and Lady T under her alias, gonegirl.

*

On Sunday, she tried an upbeat text, but he didn’t answer. She consoled herself for a couple of weeks with OKCupid, but when she started getting an average of twenty messages a day from a guy named Colin she hadn’t even meet yet, and complained to roomie Barbara, she didn’t get a lot of sympathy.

“It’s a huge time-suck,” Barbara said. “Guys love it, because they don’t have any real friends. They can have a one hundred and forty character connection with no risk and no commitment.”

“That seems harsh,” Shushila said. “I should at least go on one date before I dismiss him.”

“You know who you should go on a date with?” Barbara said. “That guy they just brought on in Mike’s division, you know, the one who brought the coffee?”

“Because?”

“Because even if he’s not a would-be rock star, and has no clue about Tinder, you know what? He can actually afford to buy you dinner. And it’ll occur to him without your having to text him about it.”

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story refers to the essay “The Wild Things Go Downtown” by Virginia K. Nalencz.]

Image by m01229

“Piano Boy,”one of Margaret Fox’s gossip-based Stories for the Left Ear, was selected for the 2014 Journey Prize Anthology. “Marked on the Body,” another of those stories, appears in the Fall 2015 New Orphic Review. Fox’s poetry has been published in a number of journals, including Grey Skies Review and The Trinity Review. Fox holds a doctorate in English from the University of Toronto, a checkered past as a rock singer and lay midwife, and is the founder and principal of The Dragon Academy, a quirky independent high school for gifted non-conformists.