Please see the previous posting for excerpt #1.
“Five hundred, huh?” Thea asked.
“Not bad for a minute’s work,” I said.
Thea was the nerdiest female musician I knew. Actually the only nerdy female musician I knew. We sat at a table in the Guessed Room coffeehouse on the North Side. She wore a different pair of large, squarish black glasses. Her white T-shirt had the word DAYDREAM on it in black-outlined letters printed across an oval that had an orange sunrise or sunset in it, with each letter containing little, black-outlined clouds. Her grayish-green skirt had a crinkly, pink lace hem that brushed her knees. Her pale-green cardigan had a swirling-leaf design on the front with what looked like actual fake pearls in the leaves. Her purple hi-top sneakers matched the new highlights in her hair.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Well, for starters, five hundred bucks? I could earn more holding a yard sale, if I could find a yard.”
“But this is your first digital PSA. We all have to start somewhere.”
“How much are you earning for this video? A lot more than five hundred, I’ll bet.”
“Let’s just say my amount’s commensurate with my experience. I’ve directed PSAs for years. I know how to brainwash the masses. And anyway, I know you can use the money, whatever the amount. Everyone can use a little money, dagnabbit.”
“Yeah, but here’s my other problem: I’d feel unclean working for a bunch of right-wing Republicans.”
“The institute is bipartisan.”
“Well, technically. Some Democrats belong to it, but it’s controlled by right-wing Republicans. You know who founded it?”
“Dwight Jenkins, a local right-wing zillionaire. He made his fortune exploiting the less fortunate by running payday-loan centers in poor neighborhoods, among other shady activities.”
“Where’d you hear this?”
“I read it in YoPittsburgh Weekly.”
“Such a reputable source. Did you read that before going to the she-male escort ads?”
“All right, all right, sorry for the she-male phobia or whatever, but you have to admit, The New York Times doesn’t print ads like that.”
“So? That doesn’t mean it tells the truth about everything, either. And why are we talking about those ads, anyway? Oh, yeah—you wanted to draw attention away from the fact that your compadre works for a rich scumbag who wants to impose austerity measures on this country under the guise of debt reduction.”
“You know, slashing government spending and raising taxes. Countries such as Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Greece have done this, and they’ve had the same results: galloping inflation, high unemployment, and increased poverty. A government needs to spend money in order to stimulate its economy, to bring in increased tax revenues to pay off its debt. Not that the one-percent cares. Financial markets love it when we save money by screwing the ninety-nine percent one-hundred percent of the time.”
“That Occupy crap’s so Two-Thousand-and-Eleven,” I said in a bored voice.
“Yeah, time to move onto the next fad, right?” Thea asked. “Income inequality is so boring.”
“My income inequality is so boring. I really need this project, Thea. I’m barely hanging on by my fingernails, and they’re not even manicured. And you’re not doing any better. Do you even have healthcare? Maybe if you get lucky, you’ll be able to afford half an aspirin after you start panhandling a few years from now.”
“What makes you think I haven’t started panhandling already?”
“ ’Cause you obviously still shop at the best thrift stores. It takes money to look like a homeless new-wave librarian.”
Thea laughed her usual pantomime laugh, her face going through the motions but the sound on mute. However, this time I could sense I’d pissed her off a little. Time to soothe her hurt widdle feelings.
“I don’t want you to go broke,” I said. “Take care of yourself first, Thea. You can save the ninety-nine percent from capitalist oppression another time, like during your lunch break or something.”
Thea sipped her coffee.
“Or you don’t have to keep the money the right-wingers pay you,” I added. “You can donate it to some progressive cause. Or you can buy a vial of Lady Gaga’s sweat. Whatever you like.”
Thea sipped her coffee again.
“Tell Ross I want a thousand dollars,” she said.
“No, tell him I want two thousand, and if he doesn’t agree to that, bargain him down to one. I know he has a bottomless budget. Why would his one-percenter bosses skimp on promoting their toxic agenda? And anyway, he’s your friend, and friends stick up for each other.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“By the way, he had wanted someone much younger than you, so I told him you were around my age.”
Thea stared at me.
“Hey, any number’s around any other number if you use a wide enough range,” I said.
“Thanks for the math lesson,” she said a little icily.
“Aw, come on, Thea. I massaged the facts because I wanted you to star in this video.”
“How flattering, I guess. But he’ll find out my real age sooner or later.”
“Hopefully later, after you’ve dazzled him with your keytar wizardry. You do plan to play the keytar in this video, right?”
Thea grinned her crooked grin.
Two days later, I sat on the edge of the unmade futon in her combination bedroom, living room, kitchen, and recording studio. She’d written her song already; I’d asked to preview and critique it before she played it for Ross. She stood before me, a cherry-red keytar slung around her neck.
“Nice keytar,” I said. “Where’d you get it?”
“On eBay,” she replied.
“For how much?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Just curious. How much did it cost?”
“I could afford it, don’t worry.”
Years earlier, I had asked how things were going in her marriage. “Just fine, don’t worry,” she’d said in the same soothing tone.
She had obviously paid way too much for that instrument. No wonder she had such precarious finances. No wonder she lived in a dinky apartment on the Slopes, the vertiginous hills overlooking the South Side, the hip Pittsburgh neighborhood known for its tattoo places, bars, and tattooed drunks.
She started fiddling with the buttons on her keytar’s imitation guitar neck.
“By the way, I saw something interesting this morning on the YoPittsburgh blog,” she said. “Greece’s unemployment rate has hit twenty-six-point-eight percent, the highest in Europe.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Spain’s unemployment rate is only twenty-six-point-six percent.”
Thea looked at me. She frowned.
“This song could help devastate America’s economy,” she said.
“Well, we won’t know till you start singing, now, will we?” I asked.
She glared at me. Then she started playing a brisk march, her fingers bouncing on the keytar’s keyboard. After a few seconds, she started singing in the off-key, sweet, adorable, girlish way Ross had wanted, tentatively at first, then with more confidence as the song progressed:
The national debt / Of the USA / Has grown so big / It can ruin our day // We gotta fix the debt / And that’s a fact / Tell Washington / We’re ready to act // It won’t be easy / That’s another fact / But we’ll have so much more / When we give something back // Give up a little / To get a lot / Doing our share / Now that’s real hot // Give up a little / To get a lot / So our kids’ll have / What we all got // Give up a little / To get a lot / Give up a little / To get a lot / Give up a little / To get a lot
Her performance ended.
“Wow, Thea,” I said as I clapped with enthusiasm.
“Thanks,” she said.
“What a great song. It conveys its message almost perfectly.”
“Um…in the chorus, could you change ‘Give up a little’ to ‘Give a little’? Giving up something has negative connotations. Plus ‘Give up a little’ also sounds like you’re telling people to submit to defeat.”
She looked down at her keytar for a moment.
“All right, I’ll change that line,” she said.
“Don’t be so glum,” I said. “Change it to ‘Give a little,’ and the video will go viral for sure.”
“Right. Have you talked with Ross about my two grand?”
“Sorry, but no,” Ross had told me over beers the previous night at an upscale bar in downtown Pittsburgh.
“She said she’d also accept a thousand,” I’d said.
“Well, she’ll have to accept it from someone else. Tell her I definitely can’t go over five hundred, ’cause my budget’s tighter than my fine, fine ass.”
“You mean your cheap, cheap ass. Come on, she deserves more money.”
“Are you banging her?”
“No! She’s a friend, and I want to help her out.”
“Hmm.” He ran his fingers up and down the side of his beer mug. “All right, I’ll pay her fifteen-hundred more. I’ll just pay you fifteen-hundred less.”
“Yeah, I talked with him last night,” I told Thea. “He said he’ll get back to you.”
“Meaning he said no,” she said.
“Meaning he’ll get back to you. You should have a more positive attitude.”
More massaging of the facts—he would get back to her when he paid her that chump-change amount, five hundred dollars. At least he’d paid for my beers.
Copyright © 2014 by David V. Matthews