Josie kneels on knees scuffed raw. She tilts her chin upwards as if to take communion. Her bright blue eyes—her ma’s eyes—are lasered at the bulbous silver microphone perched like a hornet’s nest on the stand in front of her.
Pa sits in a dark corner of the recording studio watching her, as always, his brown eyes steeled and rimmed with weary. The pittance of black hair still on his head is slicked back; pink scalp announces itself in alternating stripes. He’s worn his best shirt for this recording session because Bird Dog Studios are Big Time. His button down is bleached and starched so hard Josie could swear she had heard a crack each time Pa turned the steering wheel of the truck as they drove the four long hours towards this place. Towards this opportunity. Pa wouldn’t even crack a window for fear the churned dust from the dirt roads would sully his shirt’s startling whiteness. Josie got droopy from the stalled, hot air inside the truck, nearly fainted, and only felt back to herself once Pa got her a Pepsi from the soda machine in the Bird Dog lounge.
The sound engineer, a nice man who looks like Mr. Payard, her fifth teacher at the school she no longer attends—because it would be a sin to send Josie to school when she has what Pa tells everyone is “a heavenly calling”—adjusts the knobs and dials on the black box attached to the mike. There’s the pop, sizzle, fizz, and sharp tang of electric current on the verge of disaster. But only the verge.
“We’re good to go again, Sweetheart,” nods the nice man. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Mr. Payard had also been nice. He’d told Josie’s ma that Josie was bright the one and only day her ma picked her up from school like the other mothers did all the time. “Whip smart that one”, he’d said, and her mother gasped as if Mr. Payard knew about Pa’s whips, saved for special occasions. Josie squeezed her mother’s arm and consoled, “Not real whips, Mama. All Mr. Payard means is that I’m a good student.”
Now in the still air of Bird Dog’s recording studio, Josie raises her arms, sticky palms clenched. She inhales the deep suck of air her pa likes to tell people is Josie’s way of taking in the Holy Spirit. Sweat stains halo her armpits, ripening the slippery polyester of Josie’s Sunday best. The crimson sash around her waist binds her tighter than a trussed turkey, but there’s no time to adjust. Josie sings her pure little heart out. Voice as sweet as sun-ripened peaches. Voice like an angel. Voice like an exhilarated dove.
Josie gives herself over to song. She doesn’t know what, if anything, she’s channeling. All she knows is she’s singing for Ma, back home. Josie hits perfectly pitched high C’s then drops to a register so low it even shakes the blanketed boards of the studio walls. She imagines her ma bent over the ironing board, or the sink, or the toilet. Scrubbing, pressing, mending. Trying to keep things in order, to save the threadbare, to stretch the dinner of grits with an old cans of beans, to make due so that when Josie and Pa return he won’t have any dark reasons in him. So her ma won’t have to bend over in agony, and Josie won’t have to shut her mouth, her eyes, her ears, after all have been wide, wide open here in Memphis, at Bird Dog Recording Studio where the room is filled with the perfumed notes of hallelujahs and nothing can ever go wrong.
Alice Kaltman is the author of the story collection Staggerwing, and the novels Wavehouse and The Tantalizing Tale of Grace Minnaugh. Her new novel, Dawg Towne is forthcoming in April 2021 from word west. Her stories appear in numerous journals including Hobart, Whiskey Paper, Joyland, and BULL: Men’s Fiction, and in the anthologies The Pleasure You Suffer, On Montauk, and Feckless Cunt. Alice lives, writes, and surfs in Brooklyn and Montauk, NY.