Authors: Naima DaCosta
The only softness in the room came from an old easy chair tucked in the far corner away from the hi tech setup. Bathed in a soft glow from an elegant, Edwardian reading lamp. it was surrounded by a pair of matching bookshelves full to the brim with old volumes and, several of which were stacked on little reading table in front of the chair. He motioned her to the couch saying "sit down, sit down" while he went to the cupboard of his kitchenette "coffee?" he asked her, already filling his own mug full to the brim with strong black liquid. "yes, thank you- black is fine" she said gratefully, looking forward to feeling the warmth of a steaming cup in her cool hands. He handed her the fresh cup he had just poured and took a sip from his own while he walked a few paces back and forth absent-mindedly before turning to her to study her for the first time.
Hayley felt like he was looking straight through him. She kept her herself composed, smiling graciously, refusing to blush or fidget nervously while in a leisurely manner, he looked her over.
"Michael was right- you are an rare specimen" She laughed without embarrassment at his strange remark.
"Well, I don't know what you mean.. I'm really just focused on my work most of the time..so I don't really think much about how people see me I assume you don't know many young black female songwriters?" He smiled, amused, as if she had missed the point entirely though he politely acknowledged her remark "No, I don't know any young songwriters at all, as a matter of fact"
He added, somewhat grandly, "No doubt you know me by reputation- which is mostly accurate I'm as reclusive and as disinterested in what goes on out there as they all say, probably more so"
He had a relaxed, yet strangely focused way of talking, as if he formed his words precisely before letting his voice release them in a smooth, carefree cadence, with something like cool jazz. "I'm assuming that, knowing this, you still think there's something to be gained by seeking me out.. he smiled ironically " - don't be offended if I say right now that no matter how little your presence may annoy me, meeting new people, especially other people in the business, is not something I relish."
Jack paused to walk over to the side table and pour a measure of bourbon into his coffee. He added, " Let's save some time, Ms. Hayley Parker.. "
Hayley irrationally felt proud hearing his respectful tone in speaking her name, despite her awareness of the irony inherent in it.
"You can correct my mistakes afterwards. You're a struggling songwriter, It's been your passion for your whole life. You don't have much money or any connections but you work hard every day to hone your skills in preparation for the break that you so richly deserve..."Jack continued with good humor.
He rambled through his little speech like he was reciting a tired old cliche devoid of any meaning or relevance.
"Everyone you've ever known thinks you're the most gifted person they've ever met and they constantly tell you how much they believe in you and wish for your success, though they're truly sorry they can't do anything to help you achieve it."
Before Hayley could muster up the will to respond, he added almost tiredly "You're a sincere person. You follow your heart but you don't want to hurt people on the way. You're bright and caring and you understand people's motivations, but you don't use that against them. Only your work makes you truly happy, your only real friends are the people who understand that deep down, that's all that really matters."
Hayley thought she should be mad by his arrogant summary of her, but he stated it with with no ill will. She thought she sensed a barely percept able sympathy behind his disinterested demeanor, but perhaps it was only wishful thinking. Her ego remained secure, bolstered by his awareness of her, feeling free from a need to explain herself.
"Yes that's me in a nutshell. Micheal was right, you are an astute old tomcat" her tone dared to mock him slightly, but Jack laughed, genuinely amused. Despite his earlier words his manner warmed up a bit. He allowed his seldom exercised charm to animate his gestures.
"I don't like young people in general but I don't mind saying your a refreshing change so you can relax- you can do or say whatever you want without fear that I'm going to throw you out"
Hayley didn't know what to say to that.
"So tell me, What exactly do you want?" Jack sat patiently face folded in a loose, easy smile. She smiled in acknowledgement of his compliment and nodded thoughtfully for a second before saying clearly and with conviction the words she had rehearsed in her head all week.
"Your honest opinion of my work and any advice you may have about my career, I don't expect anything else. You're the only person I've ever had a chance to meet whose success I aspire to." Hayley paused and looked around before adding, "It feels good to be in here. It's not what I expected at all. It feels like a factory. It makes me feel like I need to get back to work, I hope to have a place like this someday."
Jack smiled, responding to the last part first, "That's the idea. I don't like distractions, I'm glad you appreciate the importance of that." He frowned slightly as he tried to think how to explain his position.
"I believe you. I can see you're sincere- maybe too sincere. I'm sure you're very good. I also think that deep down you hope this meeting will lead to something else. I'd rather disappoint you now than later: Forget about it."
Hayley continued sitting calmly but internally she braced herself for the rest of his words.
"Enjoy your time, have a drink, look around , soak it up. Talk about your favorite music but for heaven's sake don't pin any of hopes for success on me and don't ask me to coach you about the business. It's not a subject I really have anything to say about."
Jack smiled and sat down across from her pouring another splash of booze into his glass. He angled the bottle toward her cup.. she reached out to accept a generous serving. Hayley took a sip from her cooling mug and feeling the warmth from the liquor roll slowly down her throat.
"I meant what I said. I just came for your opinion and your honest advice"
He spoke lightly, trying to brush this off, "My opinion doesn't matter- if my sterling example inspires you to loftier heights- good!" his irony was cool, without rancor.
"Since you've never met one of your heroes before, I might as well tell you, It's generally a pretty disappointing experience" he punctuated his remark by lifting his glass with a self mocking gesture, sipping it's contents with satisfaction.
Hayley laughed, she was charmed. She liked him. He was so obviously full of bitterness and emotionally detached but his own amused awareness and acceptance of these facts made him seem very real and solid, Like a rock she could lean her own uncertainties on.
"I'm enjoying myself so far. I feel at home here" she bit her lip, realizing that this was a pretty presumptuous thing to say, but it had just slipped out.
Jack looked at her penetratingly "I don't think you would feel that if you spent much time here-" he lightened up, "Fortunately I don't have much time to give, so just enjoy the feeling while it lasts."
Hayley didn't let it faze her. She sensed that he was being gentle with her, by his standards. She felt pleased, even grateful. She decided it was time to make her stand, for what it was. Clearly he was content to just sit there and banter with her until he decided it was time to go back to work and he sent her away. She couldn't surrender so easily. She felt like he secretly expected more of her even though he behaved indifferently.
"Do you mind if I play?" she asked, pointing to the piano behind him.
"By all means!" He made a great show of turning his chair around to an angle where he could watch her while she played- as if he were a real audience and she a respected artist. She began to play. The piano started the song alone. It had a clever, catchy little intro that danced quickly, double time. Then it slowed to a medium tempo ballad feel with a slight gospel flavor as her voice rose wordlessly over the simple, clean changes. After 4 bars she began to sing the song itself letting the nuance of the words come through clearly, through good diction and an unrushed delivery. Her voice was strong and smooth and she sold the simple sentiment of hope and love with a flowing rhyme scheme and a melody that rose and fell elegantly in harmony with the emotion of the words themselves.
She finished the song with a simple statement of the melody and chords, letting the final notes fade out before stopping and taking a drink, waiting nervously, Slightly embarrassed, not wanting to show how emotions were stirred up by her own performance.
"Bravo!" Jack said loudly.
Hayley shoulders relaxed in relief, she turned and smiled, a little shyly . " very, very well written song... solid, professional presentation." She giggled at his loud insincere tone, which seemed to be a parody of a t.v. presenter or a disc jockey he reflected and added in a normal voice "Not an instant hit, by any means but good adult contemporary fare, possibly suitable for christian radio- needs to be featured in a really mushy movie."
Hayley blushed, she knew it was sappy and a bit corny.. but she was writing for the market, women 25-55.
Jack continued unabated. "Unfortunately there's probably any number of songs as good in the lobby garbage cans of any major label record company." Hayley's face fell and she nodded sadly, "I suppose that might be true."
Jack went on grimly, "Do you know that song 'The Rose'?" Hayley responded quickly, "of course, it's one of my favorite songs."
"Sometime you should read the story of the housewife who wrote it and tried to get record companies to listen to it- it might make you think twice about your career choice."
"But it was a huge hit!" she protested.
"Sure...eventually... through pure chance- the kind of chance that you'd better not think you can count on."
Jack seemed like he wanted her to give up. Or maybe he was testing her. He continued, "I like you Hayley but I'm simply not interested in your career. It doesn't matter how well you write. As cute as this little meeting is, you don't need my approval, you how good you know you are. The point is, I don't interfere. I hate the industry and I have as little to do with it as I can. I don't ask favors and I don't grant them. People know this. I've removed myself completely from that world of parties and meetings and backroom handshakes. I've become quite unpopular among the people who would be able to exploit your work. A recommendation coming from me from me would be be as ridiculous as a priest reading a eulogy in a strip club."
Hayley sighed and took a CD out of her coat pocket "Isn't there anyone at all you could give this to?" He shook his head.. "It doesn't work like that"...he said gently "at this level of the business I work in even the couple of friends I have left would just laugh if I tried to sell an unknown writer's work to them..especially one so young and inexperienced" She wanted to cry...not because it was actually unfair but because she had been so excited and hopeful..this had seemed like her only real chance, and facing the first real obstacle she had ever encountered it seemed there was nothing she could to overcome it. She mustered her dignity and smiled graciously saying quietly.. "I'll just leave this here and if you change your mind my contacts are on it so... " "really, don't. It'll just end up getting thrown away."
Jack said it so casually she felt hot, trapped..it was so cruel to say it to her face when he knew how much it meant to her.
"Look, This business is rough.. I don't want to raise false hopes about how easy it is. You're talented enough. But talent isn't enough. You seem like a decent person keep writing jingles and you can be a big fish in a small pond in time if you keep going the way you're going. that's probably a better life for someone like you. so stop dreaming about schmoozing your way to the top. A lot of us cats have had to fight hard and dirty for years to get ahead and the rest lucked out. You can't count on that..and I'm definitely no rabbit's foot. It's better you accept these things now from someone who doesn't mind telling you the truth."
"Look," Hayley said, "I don't want a free ride, I want to work I want to earn it.. I know I can write as good as anyone she flushed having forgotten who she was talking to.. I mean I'm sure I have it in me"
Jack shook his head, "you'll have to prove it on your own.."
Hayley felt exasperated "isn't there anyway to get a break in this business?"
Against his better judgement Jack let his real feelings show, "there are no breaks for people like you or me in this business coming up from the bottom- you don't break into it.. It breaks you. It keeps breaking you until you crack and if you're lucky you'll make back for the next round and then the next. If you last enough rounds then eventually they give you a booby prize... how big depends on how good you actually were back before you had the humanity beaten out of you."
Jack stopped his tirade and collected himself, "sound like fun to you?"
Hayley was getting angry, didn't he realize how horribly skewed his viewpoint was?...how awful he sounded? he seemed so so twisted. She didn't want this to turn into an argument so she controlled herself and said breezily, "don't worry about me, I can always fuck my way to the top if all else fails." He looked at her critically and she felt infuriated by his impersonal assessment of her attractiveness.
"You? No.. I wouldn't think so."
Hayley was losing control now, "I was kidding. I don't need to but it's not like I couldn't if I chose to."