“Elvis and The Beatles only ever met once,” said Cal, holding up an index finger over the laminate surface of the table to emphasise the one-ness of that event.
Erin focused on the finger, going momentarily cross-eyed, then looked up at Cal, her eyes now wide with faux-innocence.
“Who met the what now?”
Cal shot the ceiling an imploring look. He went to put the index finger away, but then thought better of it and instead wagged it at Erin.
“Don’t you start that ‘I’m so young that your cultural references mean nothing to me, old man’ crap with me. Besides, I’ve heard you do ‘Across the Universe’.”
Erin shrugged. “So I like Fiona Apple. What’s that got to do with anything?”
Cal let out a theatrical snort.
“Okay,” said Erin. “So you’re comparing that to this?” She gestured to the deserted diner about them. They sat in a window booth about half-way down its length. Outside, a solitary car swept along the highway, headlights slicing through the inky night.
“You’re saying that what we’ve got going on here is an event of enormous cultural significance?”
“Future generations will speak of it in hushed tones? Students of the history of music will write their theses on it? Wannabe writers will use it as a framing device?”
“There may even be a film. Or at least a TV movie.”
“I still remain to be convinced.”
“Whatever.” Cal sank back into the seat’s plush vinyl depths. “But you have to admit that this is the most significant meeting of Internet troubadoury since Jonathan Coulton last bumped into Paul and-stroke-or Storm.”
“Which was probably breakfast time. I hear they share a house. How long have you had that eye thing?”
“What eye thing?”
“You sort of twitched when you mentioned Jonathan Co— Whoa! Whenever anyone mentions Jonathan Coulton. Would you look at that.”
“I do not.”
“Do too. Jo-Co, Jo-Co, Jo-Co.”
“You know, I think I’d better be leaving.” Cal put his palms flat on the table and started to lever himself out of the booth.
“All right. Sit down.” Erin picked up her water, took a sip, spent a moment listening to the ice tinkling against the glass. “So what are you doing here, anyway?”
“Just passing through? You?”
“The same. Or so I keep telling myself. It’s been twenty-something years now. I don’t seem to be very good at it.” She grinned. “You’re travelling in style.” She inclined her head slightly to indicate the expensive black sedan sat just beyond the window glass, its glossy bodywork darker than the night around it.
Cal shrugged, embarrassed. “It gets me from A to B.”
“Is B hereabouts? Are you playing tonight?”
“Not round here, and not tonight. I was out west yesterday, and I’ve got a gig further east tomorrow.”
“Is it far?”
Cal nodded. “I’m going to have to drive through. Maybe get there in time to catch an hour’s sleep before the show.” He shrugged, rearranged the plate and coffee cup before him, sliding the knife and fork together. “You know what it’s like.”
“Sure.” She paused for a moment, as if considering whether to continue. When she did, she spoke to the water glass, turning it slowly as she did. “You let the audience tell you where they’d like to see you play, and when you’ve got a cluster big enough that you think it might pay for the gas to get you there and back again, you take a deep breath and book a venue and put tickets on sale and hope that at least half of them weren’t completely full of shit.”
Cal raised his arms aloft. “Testify, sister.”
“And then, if things go really well, you end up in some hay barn several miles outside fuck-knows-where, Kansas, playing at the local Harry Potter fan club’s annual picnic.”
Cal laughed. “Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. At least you get an audience. I’m happy whenever it’s not just me and the barman.” He gave this a few moments of quiet reflection. “The worst part is where they’re glaring at you the whole time because you’re sat there playing and not buying drinks.”
“You want to talk nightmare intimate gigs? Because I bet I can top anything you’ve got.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it.”
“Last time I was out touring — “
“Hark at Bono here.”
Erin gave him a sweet smile while delicately scratching her nose with an extended middle finger.
“This was a couple of months ago,” she continued. “It was one of those freak coincidences.”
“I’m guessing heavy on the freaks.”
“You have no idea. I had a free evening and there were these few requests in the same place, about midway between where I was and where I needed to be, and they said that they’d provide the venue for free.”
“I don’t like the sound of that. Wait. Does this story end with them finding your partially-clothed body in woodland?”
Erin stared blankly at him for a moment. “Yes, that’s right. And I think you’ve just given away the twist ending: all the time you’ve been sat here talking to me, I’ve really been a ghost. Do I look like I’ve been dead a couple of months?”
Cal shrugged, waved at the lights. “Fluorescents can be very unforgiving.”
“Anyway. I’m not just going to walk into some place I haven’t checked out, so I look up the address on Google maps. It’s a little nothing town in the middle of nowhere — “
“No surprise there.”
“ — but the address is on the main street so I think, ‘Okay, why the hell not?’.”
“Do you need a list? Because I have one pre-printed.”
“There’s no StreetView available — ”
“Just a pop-up which says ‘Here be dragons’?”
“ — so it isn’t until I pull up outside that — “
“That you discover — no, let me guess — that it’s a meat-packing warehouse. No, an exact replicate of the Bates Motel. No — ”
“It was just a regular suburban two-storey.”
“You know,” said Cal, seriously, “every American serial killer ever lived in a regular suburban two-storey at some point in their life. True fact,” he concluded with a small, satisfied nod. “So what happened next? You were ushered into the front parlour where they had homemade lemonade waiting for you?”
“I wish. You know that cliche about twenty-something guys living in their Mom’s basement?”
“At one point she brought down some laundry and he was practically in tears begging her not to put the dryer on. I think I was there to provide entertainment for his Dungeons and Dragons evening. There were the five of them sat on lawn chairs and me on the bed.”
“I think I’ve seen this video on the Internet. We’re they all midgets with disproportionately large — ?”
“No. And stop being so mean.” Erin tapped a nail against the side of her glass, a smile creeping across her lips. “It was really rather sweet.”
“You seriously weren’t worried?”
“Maybe a little at first. But then I realised that they were probably more frightened of me than I was of them. Besides, if they were going to try anything they probably would’ve had to roll initiative first.” She thought for a moment. “If there was any bad, it was their limited interest in my repertoire. You can guess the only song they wanted to hear.”
“That one where you sing ‘Ceiling Cat’ to the tune of ‘Smelly Cat’?”
“I must’ve sung ‘Geeky Girlfriend’ at least a dozen times. I’d try a couple of verses of something else in-between, but I’d just get these blanks looks — not that any of them would meet my gaze, they’d just aim them at my breasts — so another round of ‘Geeky Girlfriend’ it was.”
“Gotta give your audience what they want.”
“Sure.” Erin sat back, ran a finger through the condensation on the glass. “Hey, Cal.”
“Do you remember when artist made money from selling recordings of their music?”
“Shit, Erin. Exactly how old do you think I am? What am I, an Ancient Music Historian? Who — ”
“Sorry.” Cal became slightly more serious. “What’s up? You sound like a slither of door money and whatever you can scrounge from merchandising isn’t enough for you.”
“Well, it isn’t. And who buys CDs these days, anyway?”
“That’s why you need to expand your marketing strategy beyond CDs. Come up with a logo and slap it on everything CafePress sells. That’s Indie Musician biz-dev 101.”
“And to think I became a singer-songwriter for the singing and the songwriting.”
“It’s easy once you get going. I came up with this great new slogan the other day: ‘Cal gave me hours of pleasure, and all I paid him for was this lousy T-shirt’.”
“Pithy, but you’re going to need to use a small font.”
“Didn’t I hear that someone paid you to use ‘I am not — ‘“
“Hey!” She held out a hand to stop him. “The punctuation’s there for a reason. Use it, bitch.”
“Sorry. Didn’t someone pay you to use ‘opening parenthesis I am not a closing parenthesis Creative’? (Better?)”
“(Perfect, thanks.)” She gave him the thumbs up. “To answer your question: yes they did. And to preempt your follow-up: no, not nearly enough. I used it to buy that pee-oh-ess Toyota you see parked out there, just so I didn’t have to keep borrowing my Mom’s junker whenever I needed to drive to a gig.”
“But I though that went massive, with the video and everything.”
“No.” She sighed, shrugged. “It went viral, which is sort of like massive only without anyone getting paid. There’s no money in YouTube views.”
“So I guess what I heard about the Chocolate Rain kid driving a solid gold Escalade is untrue.”
“Yeah. Untrue and also ever-so-slightly racist.”
“But you can’t really put a price on that kind of exposure, can you?”
“No, because it’s worthless.”
“Cynical much?” Cal asked, raising an eyebrow. “And at such a young age.”
“I’m surprised you’re not, too, after what happened to you with The Doc — Whoa! Your eye just did the twitching thing again in a major way.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Cal said, screwing up his napkin and dropping it into the empty coffee cup.
“Fine by me,” said Erin.
“Bastard should’ve been shot for what he did. I should’ve shot the bastard for what he did.”
“You were featured on, like, the largest podcast in the world. Don’t tell me that didn’t get people listening to your stuff.”
“Sure it did. You know what else got people listening to my stuff? Him putting DRM-free copies of all my songs into one handy archive, dropping it on BitTorrent, and then handing out the link. My paid downloads fell off a cliff — no, were pushed off a cliff — overnight.” He ran a hand violently through his hair, rubbed at his goatee, and, regaining control, smiled at Erin. “Still, yeah, I’ll concede it pretty-much made my name. There’s some talk of me opening for one of Great Alex’s secret warmup gigs, you know.”
They sat for a little while in a drowsy silence — of buzzing lights, cars swooshing by out on the highway, the occasional clatter from the kitchen — which was eventually broken by the opening of the diner’s door.
Erin stood. “I’ve got to…”
Cal stood, too. “Yeah, I’d better be going. I’ve got a long way to drive.”
“At least you’re travelling in comfort,” said Erin, with another quick glance at the expensive sedan parked just outside the window.
“Yeah,” smiled Cal. “Some lawyer moving his family from Seattle to Boston. They’re taking the plane while I’m driving this across country for them. You know how it works. I get the use of it for a week or so. And they’re paying for the gas, which would have cost more than I made myself so far this year.” He pulled on his jacket. “It was good to meet you.”
“You too,” said Erin, tying up her apron. She picked up the pad and pencil and then juggled them as Cal held out his hand. They shook, and then embraced awkwardly.
“Good luck,” Cal said, heading for the door and the dark and the long drive ahead.
“You too,” Erin called to his retreating back, then turned to greet her new customers.