Melissa climbed the staircase in her Belle Meade estate and hollered, “You’re going to be late!”
She entered Jonathan’s room first, aghast at the sight of dirty laundry strewn about an entire floor space larger than her first apartment. Exotic car posters covered one wall. A Miami Heat poster decorated a closet door. “I want your room cleaned up when you get home today. Put your dirties in the basket and bring them to the laundry room for me.”
Jonathan pulled a shirt over his head. “What about Adam’s room?”
“Same goes for him.”
“Yolanda always does our laundry.”
“Not anymore.” Melissa advanced through the bathroom to Adam’s adjoining cave. “Let’s go!”
Adam took his iPhone from the dresser. A Fender guitar stood upright in its stand beside a Marshall amplifier. Criss Angel posters covered the walls. “Where’s Tomás?”
“He’s bringing the car around.”
Adam shoved his dirty laundry in a pile. “I haven’t eaten yet.”
“You should have thought about that twenty minutes ago.” Melissa picked up a shredded air soft target printed with a zombie holding a flask of green toxic goo. “You need to work on your room too. With both hands. And a shovel.”
“Yes. And make sure you brush your teeth.”
Adam opened his sock drawer with his back to his mom and said, “I know…”
“All of them.”
* * *
Jonathan raced his brother down the stairs, bumping and shoving his younger sibling along the winding banister.
“It’s not a race!” Adam shouted.
“Boys! Knock it off!” Melissa yelled from the spacious eat-in kitchen downstairs. She wore her hair up with her skinny jeans and a silk top she’d purchased from a favorite boutique. She had a party to plan and a million things to do without having to referee her sons.
“Where’s breakfast?” asked Jonathan.
“The big closet with the food,” said Melissa.
“Where’s Yolanda?” asked Adam. He tucked in his shirt and cinched his belt another notch.
“Yolanda quit,” Melissa stated matter-of-factly. “She doesn’t work for us anymore.”
“Since when?” the boys asked in unison.
“Who’s going to cook for us?” asked Adam.
Melissa emptied the dishwasher and stacked clean plates in the cabinet above the stove. “You two are able-bodied. It’s time you learned to do more on your own.”
Jonathan entered the butler pantry to search the well-stocked shelves for a box of Pop-Tarts or a chocolate chip granola bar.
“This sucks,” said Adam. “Why did Yolanda quit?”
“Because she caught you jacking off again,” Jonathan taunted his brother.
“You shut up.”
“Boys! Get your stuff together. Tomás is waiting in the car.”
Adam peeled the drapes back to inspect the circular driveway for the Bentley. “Which one?”
“Did you finish your homework?” Melissa prodded.
“We didn’t have any,” Jonathan replied when he emerged from the pantry. He tore open a granola bar and chewed hungrily.
“Did you bring your dirty laundry downstairs?”
“We will,” Jonathan mumbled between bites as he chewed.
“Did you feed the horses?”
Jonathan looked at his brother, who mirrored the same perplexed expression. “Tomás always does that.”
“Not anymore. You boys will need to start cleaning the stalls too.”
“We don’t know how,” said Adam, pouring himself a glass of milk from the side-by-side Sub-Zero refrigerator.
“Then you’ll learn.”
“No fair,” said Jonathan. He threw his granola wrapper on the counter and took a swig from the milk jug when his mom wasn’t looking.
“Don’t drink out of the jug,” Melissa implored.
Jonathan sheepishly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I wasn’t.”
“I also want the pool cleaned when you boys get home from school.”
“That’s not our job either,” Jonathan complained.
Melissa ventured toward her music studio. “It is now.”
* * *
Tomás drove a Lincoln Town Car around the driveway and waited. He snatched a folded copy of The Tennessean from the seat beside him and checked the sports section for the basketball scores.
Outside the car, thick clouds lingered with the threat of stormy weather. Then as if on cue, drops hit the windshield in a random stutter start before evolving to a steady rain. The sound reminded him of his parents and his childhood years growing up in Honduras before the El Salvadoran violence began. Now he enjoyed a good life in Belle Meade with the Hamilton family. A better life than he could have ever hoped for, though not without great sadness in recent times as he’d outlived his parents and buried his wife of forty years.
He trimmed the edge of his fingernail with a small pocket knife. When Jonathan and Adam climbed in back, he folded the blade and set the paper down to stretch his arm across the passenger seat. “Buenos días. Cómo estás?”
“Bien,” Jonathan replied.
“You bring your umbrellas?”
“Sí,” said Jonathan, sliding across the seat to make room for his brother, Adam, who quickly settled in beside him. He shoved his backpack on the floorboard in front of him. “Where’s the Bentley?”
Tomás waited for the boys to buckle their seatbelts. “It transformed.”
Jonathan looked at his brother and shrugged his shoulders.
“We have a new ride now.”
“But I liked the Bentley more,” said Adam.
Tomás followed the driveway to the end and waited for the iron gate to open. He looked at Adam in the rear view mirror and winked. “Me too.”
“Yolanda quit,” said Jonathan. “I had to serve myself.”
Tomás arched his eyebrows. “The injustice…”
“I’m serious. Mom said we have to clean the pool, too.”
“And feed the horses,” said Adam.
“Sometimes we learn the value of hard work by working hard.”
“And sometimes life just sucks,” Jonathan replied.
Tomás drove through the open gate. “Your life is what you make of it.” He merged with traffic and gunned the engine to pass a school bus before it slowed to deploy the mechanical stop sign.
Jonathan watched his home fade from view. “Are you leaving us too?”
“No Sir. I’m here for as long as your mother needs my help.”
“Can you cook?”
“Can LeBron James dunk a basketball?”
“Can we skip school today?”
“You trying to get me fired?”
“Never,” said Adam before his brother could reply. He leaned forward in his seat. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to our family.”
“Very kind of you young man, but you’re still going to school today.”
Melissa stood beneath the crystal chandelier suspended from her foyer’s vaulted ceiling and waved goodbye to a bevy of freeloading guests. She twisted her hand back and forth with her arm raised in a Princess Diana pose, convinced that half of her invite list would never step foot in her home again. She blamed the dreary weather for the low turnout, but she also blamed herself for the poorly executed brunch thrown together in haste without the proper decorum required to adequately disguise her promotional opportunity as a charity event. Despite the advance invitations, the elaborate catering, and Sid’s efforts to entice Nashville’s music elite to attend, she’d missed the mark. By a football field.
She waited for the trailing limousine to disappear down the sloping driveway. Then she retreated inside to find Sid rooting through leftover hors d’oeuvre on the white lace buffet table. “I thought you hated sushi.”
Sid tasted the smoked salmon on potato gaufrette with dilled sour cream. In his other hand, he balanced a plate of deviled egg, maple glazed ham, and carved turkey breast above a tray of champagne flutes. “Where I come from, we call it bait.”
Melissa grabbed an open bottle of Crystal from a bevy of ice and sipped the cold champagne. “Did anyone even notice my background music? I spent six weeks arranging that piece.” She drank some more. “Too subliminal?”
“Too transparent,” Sid maintained with his fork descending toward a tray of seared lobster on lemon thyme risotto cake. “Pretending to solicit money for inner city kids while you socialize your big comeback among our Nashville patricians looked better on paper than in practice.”
“I thought you invited fifty people?”
“I reached out to fifty people, most of whom declined. Label executives can be an ignorant lot at times, but they’re not dumb.”
“I should have listened to you.”
Sid passed on the crackers and caviar dip. He set his plate down and wiped his silver goatee with a napkin. “These people aren’t your friends. Not in the truest meaning. Half your guests would poke their own eyes out if it would push them ahead of their competition. You deserve better.”
“No argument there.”
Sid noted Melissa’s tipsy body language. “How much have you had to drink?”
“Not enough.” Melissa downed another swig of champagne. She could almost feel the room begin to move beneath her four-inch heels. “At least my heart’s in the right place.”
“No. It’s not. And your head isn’t either.”
“Then what do you expect me to do? I’m not feeling the love from my current record label.”
Sid grabbed the champagne bottle from Melissa’s tenuous grasp. “Wharton Brothers is not the problem.”
Melissa made a token effort to retrieve the bottle. “I get it.” She looked away. “I’ve got five grand worth of leftover food and drink in this house and no one but you to eat it.”
“Never stopped me before.”
Melissa slipped her heels off. “I’m going upstairs. Do me a favor and kill the music.”
* * *
Sid finished his plate and cleared a space to park his dish on the buffet table. Melissa deserved better, but her ill-conceived publicity stunt ended as he’d predicted, with an empty house and a shattered diva overcome by pride and a stubborn propensity to ignore reality and persist in a state of disillusionment. He’d seen the results with other clients. Some older. Some younger. All talented but edging past their prime. The music business was a monster lurking in the Garden of Eden, waiting for the inevitable rise and fall of superstardom. A lucky few knew when to get out while the rest languished in denial, possessed by their twisted desire to conquer Nashville without realizing Nashville had already conquered them.
He could have pressured more people to attend, but turning the screws on old acquaintances for another goodwill gesture never faired well. He’d built his career on his reputation, pounding the pavement one block at a time for thirty years to outmaneuver, outsmart, or outlive the competition. He had Melissa’s interests at heart, but he had his own status to protect. Nudging a few music executives now and then to draw attention to a demo session was one thing, but trying to push cold product on people who weren’t interested came across as disingenuous at best.
He advanced toward the glass-enclosed studio, where a grand piano sat opposite Melissa’s Grammy prominently displayed in a glare-free case. He entered the private sanctuary and powered down the stereo broadcasting a new album track to the wireless speakers in the house.
* * *
Melissa propped herself with her head above the open toilet bowl. Glass fragments from a broken bottle bedazzled the Spanish tile. Another voluntary purge of her stomach contents ended with a violent gagging motion and a few drops of residual vomit.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and faced the bathroom mirror. She balanced herself with one hand on the bathtub as she stood up to tip-toe barefoot through the mine-field of broken glass.
“Melissa?” she heard Sid’s voice from the upstairs hall.
“I’m fine,” she answered sternly.
“What’s going on?”
“It didn’t sound like nothing.”
“I broke a bottle.”
“Are you all right?”
Melissa wiped her face with a towel and gargled with Listerine. “I went overboard on the Sushi.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Melissa opened her prescription and swallowed a blue OxyContin tablet. “I’m good…” She fixed her hair in the mirror and left the bathroom to find Sid in her path. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
Sid noticed the catastrophe on the bathroom floor. “There’s broken glass everywhere.”
Melissa stepped around him to approach the banister at the top of the stairs. “I’ll get it later. You should get going. Tomás is coming home with the boys.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You don’t have to. I can read your mind.”
Sid started down the stairs with Melissa. “I’ll send someone over to clean up the catering.”
Melissa escorted Sid to the front door and saw him out. After he drove away, she ventured back into the house, alone in the quiet confines of her private residence, her pride dissolved like the ice in the cold serving trays.
She checked the bay window when she heard a vehicle arrive outside, expecting to see Tomás in the new Town Car. Instead, she saw a younger man pull up in an old pickup truck and get out to approach the house in jeans, dirty boots, and a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He looked ruggedly handsome in a Steve McQueen sort of way but with longer hair and tattooed forearms.
Curious, and also mildly concerned, she put her clogs back on and ventured outside to confront her uninvited guest. “Who are you, and how did you get up here?”
“The gate was open,” Leland replied.
“This is private property.”
Leland took off his Stetson and touched it to his chest. “My name’s Leland Presley.”
“I already canceled my pool service.”
“You are here to clean the pool?”
Leland fidgeted with his hat in hand. “No ma’am. I tried to call, but the phone kept going to voice mail. I apologize for arriving unannounced.”
Melissa kept one hand on her hip. She felt a migraine coming on. “Whatever you’re selling Mr. Presley, I’m not interested.”
Leland retrieved Melissa’s business card from his front pocket. “The owner at the Crazy Horse Saloon gave me this.”
“Are you a singer?”
“I play guitar as well.”
“Do you play for a living?”
“Not yet, but I intend too.”
Melissa relaxed her stance and read her name on the crinkled business card. “I don’t do voice lessons anymore.”
“Are you sure? I drove an hour to get here.”
“I’m quite certain, Mr. Presley. And I only work with agent referrals.”
“I have an agent.”
“Is this a joke? Did Sid put you up to this?”
“No ma’am, but I did cross paths with him as he was leaving. You know him?”
“You could say that. Did he give you my address?”
“I found it on the Internet.”
Melissa noticed the wooden cross tattoo on Leland’s right forearm and the treble clef on his left. “Now you’re starting to creep me out. My chauffer will be back any minute.”
“Is this a bad time?”
Melissa folded her arms at her chest. Mr. Presley seemed harmless enough. Too handsome to be threatening but not in a Ted Bundy sort of way. “Can you sing, Mr. Presley?”
“I’ve been singing since I could walk.”
“Then let’s hear it.”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t think—”
“Don’t think, Mr. Presley. Sing. I don’t have a lot of time.”
Leland switched his hat to his other hand. Unprepared for the impromptu audition, he debated his options and chose a song he knew by heart. A tune he could belt out unaccompanied and unrehearsed. “Do you know ‘Unchained Melody’?”
“Does Duncan know donuts?”
Leland cleared his throat and sang the first bar.
Melissa stood quietly, almost mesmerized by the richness of Mr. Presley’s baritone voice. Her face was flush when he finished the song—a sensation she attributed to her alcohol consumption as much as Mr. Presley’s soothing vocals. “What do you do for a living?”
Leland smiled. “I do construction. Mostly carpentry.”
“Do you like construction?”
“It pays the bills.”
“Half this town can sing well enough to play in most honky-tonks. You have to be great to stand out, and even then, you’ll be hard-pressed to earn a living at it.”
“It’s not about the money.”
Melissa laughed before a muffled burp escaped through her hand on her mouth. Dismissing the awkward faux pas, she asserted, “It’s always about the money, Mr. Presley. And I don’t run a charity. I charge four hundred dollars an hour.”
Leland lowered his chin. He crunched the gravel under his boot and put his hat back on. “I’m afraid I can’t meet those terms.”
“Then why are you here?”
Leland tipped his hat at Melissa and walked back toward his truck. “Sorry to bother you.”
Melissa gawked at Leland’s truck. “It was you, wasn’t it? The one who cut me off in traffic the other day. You kept honking for me to move over.”
Leland glanced at the black Mercedes in the driveway and read the CASHVIL license plate. “I was late for the Crazy Horse audition.”
“I remember your truck.”
“I remember the finger.”
“Sorry. I suppose it wasn’t very lady-like of me, but you did drive a burr in my saddle.” Melissa saw the Town Car approach from the rise in the driveway. “You said you do construction. Can you fix things?”
“Depends on what needs fixing.”
“Everything. This house is falling apart inside. Maybe we can help each other?”