“Oh, this is so good!”
Grant couldn’t help but laugh. The look of sheer bliss on Sarah’s face after she bit into the enormous cheeseburger she’d ordered was priceless. Lindsey recommended the place to her and the pretty young blonde had been looking forward to this all day. And after all the work she’d put in today, she deserved it.
“I’m serious!” She loudly exclaimed to her dinner companion, though it came out a bit garbled as she was still chewing. “And I really like this cheese! What is it again?”
“Provel.” He smiled at her blank look and then shrugged. “It’s a St. Louis thing.”
“Provel?” Sarah responded with her own shrug. “Well, whatever it is, it’s pretty good.”
Grant simply nodded. For his part, Grant was rather glad for the patio seating at Seamus McDaniels, as he himself was not a fan of the white processed cheese. At least out here the smell of the combo of Swiss, Cheddar and Provolone wasn’t nearly as bad. To tell the truth, the mildly unpleasant odor was the only negative – and a small one at that – in what had been an overall terrific day, though he was having second thoughts about his own dinner. Lifting his fork, he glanced down at the Caesar salad he’d ordered. At least they now had all the funding they’d need, and then some.
“I can’t believe you’re going to eat that when they have a New York Strip on the menu,” she teased with another mouthful of burger. “I never figured you for rabbit food.”
“Judge’s orders,” he replied, with a bit of a grimace as he poked at the lettuce with his salad fork.
Sarah nodded knowingly. “Well, better you than me is all I can say. Last time I saw a dinner that boring, I was interning over at Arista and they had Carrie Underwood in town for a photo shoot. Real nice gal but, personally, I don’t think I’d last two days as a vegetarian.”
“I know what you mean.” Grant chuckled as he noticed himself just pushing the romaine lettuce around his plate. “By the way, now that you’ve mentioned it, how did you end up in the music business?”
“Well, it wasn’t intentional, that’s for sure,” Sarah admitted thoughtfully as she drug a scallop cut French fry through a puddle of ketchup. “Coming out of high school, I wanted to get into graphic design but had no interest in spending four or more years getting a degree. So, my folks and I looked into tech schools until I found one with the program I wanted. Only problem was the two closest campuses they had to Louisiana were either San Antonio or Nashville. A coin flip later, I was headed to the Music City.”
Clearly unable to resist any longer, she popped the now drenched bit of fried potato in her mouth. A quick swig from her soft drink, however, and she was back at it. “Anyway, the school had an internship program and before I knew it, I was doing grunt work for college credit over at Sony’s Arista Records. I caught the music bug, though. When I graduated five years ago, I picked up with a fairly recent start up label, Stone Mountain Records, and the rest, shall we say, is history.”
“So what do you do there?”
“What don’t I do?” Sarah replied with a snort. “Timothy Lanci, the CEO, has been able to bring in some big name talent but we’re nowhere near the size of the top outfits. Because of that, I’ve had to be involved in everything from production to promotion. The VP I work under, Charlie Ross, is a bit of a jerk but that’s usually not much of a problem, since I’m usually roving around so much. Hell, I even had to do some backing vocals once in a pinch when one of our regular girls had to be rushed to the hospital with appendicitis.”
Sarah slowly nodded her head and then rolled her eyes as she took another bite of her monstrous cheeseburger. “Oh, that is so divine!” She muttered.
She was not sidetracked for long, however, and soon had Grant in stitches with one funny story after another of life in the music industry. He was glad to see her so relaxed, no doubt due to the last chunk of needed funding falling into place earlier in the day. The strain of all the planning and responsibility had begun to show but, at least for a few hours, it had been relieved. It did bring to mind, however, a question he’d been meaning to ask.
“What in the world possessed you to come up with this whole free concert thing anyway?”
Sarah laughed as she took her napkin from her lap and laid in on her now empty plate. “A bit crazy of me, wasn’t it?”
“No, not really,” he responded with the shake of his head. “To tell the truth, with your wide range of experiences and contacts, this is definitely doable for you and you’re showing that.” Grant paused and then leaded a bit forward in his chair. “I’m just wondering what made you want to do it.”
Grant nodded. He had thought as much.
“The girl has an incredible voice. With the right help and support, she could crack the top 5 female country singers easy. But she won’t let me help. Never has.” Sarah threw up her hands and sighed loudly in frustration. “Instead, she hooks up with crappy band after crappy band out there in Dallas and just spins her wheels. Wants to do it all on her own, she says.”
“Then you heard her and Rennie together.” Grant tossed in with a knowing smirk.
“They blew me away! They absolutely blew me away!” She shook her head as if in disbelief. “I’ll admit, even with that ass Jimmy, she sounded pretty good singing lead with Tailgunner Joe. And I suspect, if that POS hadn’t melted down like an ice cube in a microwave, they might have actually gotten picked up. But, truthfully,” she added, shaking her head, “they wouldn’t have gotten far. Nothing distinctive about them at all, really. Just a slightly above average bar band with an all too common sound.” She paused momentarily, continuing on in awed tones. “Josie and Rennie, on the other hand...”
“Can make ‘Old McDonald’ sound incredible.”
“Tell me about it!”
The older lawyer reclined leisurely in the wooden chair, fixing his dinner companion with an appraising look. “You’ve been talking to folks back in Nashville about them recently, haven’t you?”
A sly smile stretched across the blonde’s face, her left eyebrow lifting ever so innocently. “Who me?”
“You’re a crafty one, I’ll give you that,” Grant nodded approvingly.
At that moment, however, the smooth silky voice of one Nat King Cole began emanating from his right suit coat pocket.
Unforgettable, that’s what you are. Unforgettable, though near or far...
Looking apologetically at Sarah, he explained. “It’s Anisha.” Freeing it from his pocket, Grant could not help the feeling of sadness momentarily overtake him as he gazed down at the phone. Quickly catching himself, he glanced across the table, only to be met with an expression he figured to be somewhere between curiosity and concern. Giving his friend a brief but awkward grin, he stood and began to walk away from the table as he answered the call.
“Could I ask you a bit more serious question?” Josie asked, after his laughter died down.
“I’ve been wondering this for a while.” She paused and then lifted her head to look at him. “I know you’ve explained it to Shelley, but how come your sister Bella has your three Grammys along with all your other awards?”
“Sorry, I meant to talk to you about it too but, with how crazy things have been, I remember it at all the wrong times,” he apologized, looking a bit sheepish. “As for answering your question, it’s a bit complicated, actually.”
“Well, maybe complicated isn’t the right word,” Rennie replied after a moment. “It just became that way later on.”
“You’re speaking in riddles,” Josie teasingly complained. “Come on, focus.”
He chuckled and then grew silent. “You remember me telling you about the band I played in back in college?”
She nodded. “I still can’t believe you were buds with Tyler Dawson back in the day. When’s he coming in, by the way?”
“Now who can’t focus?”
“Sorry ... but, seriously, when’s he coming in?”
Rennie laughed. “Wednesday or Thursday, he’s still not sure which, though probably the former. Now, do you want to hear the story or not?”
Josie struggled unsuccessfully to look sufficiently contrite. “Sorry ... but it is Tyler Dawson, after all.”
“Oh, no,” he groaned. “Another star struck groupie for country music’s bad boy.”
A sharp pinch brought a quick yelp of surprise from Rennie.
“I may be a groupie but I’m your groupie, and don’t you forget it!” And so as to reinforce the point, Josie rapidly sat up, placed her hands firmly on either side of his face and soundly kissed him.
“Yes, ma’am,” came his rather dazed response, after her lips released from his. “Now, where was I?”
“You were explaining about how your sister Bella ended up with all your songwriting awards.”
“Oh, right, the band.” Rennie jokingly shook his head as if clearing the cobwebs out. “Anyway, we were just starting to get some attention in the Austin area nightclubs and we needed to be able to do more than just covers. Sadly, the other guys were pretty much useless in the songwriting department.” At that moment, a huge smile crossed his face. “In fact, Ty’s all-time favorite lyric is probably still a tie between the Oscar Meier theme song and the Toys-R-Us jingle.”
“I actually started writing songs back in high school but they were all pretty dreadful, to tell the truth.” He shrugged. “Oh, the tunes weren’t bad but the lyrics were just plain awful. That all changed, however, in an English composition class, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, since we needed some songs of our own, I started dusting off some of my old tunes and wrote new words for them. I didn’t think they were all that great at the time but they went over pretty well.”
“Have I heard of any of them?”
Rennie smiled. “Yes, but you’re getting ahead of the story. Ty eventually asked permission to use them but that came a few years later.”
“If It’s Tuesday! It didn’t reach number one but it was his first top 40 hit and put him on the map. That was yours, wasn’t it?”
“You’re so smart. Now hush. Anyway, things were going pretty well at the time. It was my junior year. School was going really well and the band was getting a lot of good exposure with my songs. But then Helen came up pregnant.”
Josie could feel Rennie’s body tense up as he said that, clearly contradicting the even tone of his voice. Sensing a turning point in the story, she made a quick decision. “Now, how exactly did that happen again? Because I don’t think I caught the entire story when you told me the first time.”
Rennie audibly groaned. “I am so not going through all that again with you! You just love to torture me, don’t you?”
“Of course,” she teased as she playful tugged at one of his buttons, “because it’s so easy.” Josie then paused and her voice grew more somber. “But the rest of the story won’t be, will it?”
She could feel him shake his head “no.” They sat there together, as twilight deepened into evening, listening to the music drifting on the breeze. Just as she was about to prompt him to continue, she felt him take a deep breath and then exhale slowly.
“So there I was,” he continued, a faraway note to his voice, “living in an apartment with a wife and a child on the way. To tell the truth, I resented it. While Helen was working so hard to settle us into our first home and keep up with her studies at the same time, I was busy making sure my life didn’t really change. If I wasn’t in class, I was practicing with the guys. And then, come the weekends, I wouldn’t get back from playing the clubs until three or four in the morning.”
“Oh, Rennie.” She couldn’t help the note of disappointment in her voice. Almost against her own will, she began to feel a bit of sympathy for the other woman.
“I know. I was a real jackass. I see it now but didn’t then. That all changed, though, when she had the miscarriage. Everyone read me the riot act – her folks, Izzy, Rod, even her doctor. Not that they needed to by that point. Just seeing her in that hospital bed crying was enough to wake me up to the idiot I had been. So, I changed. She needed far better from me than I’d been giving. So, one day not long after that, when she demanded that I quit the band, I did.”
“That was pretty drastic,” Josie commented quietly, “but I can see why she wanted you to do that.”
“I could, too,” he agreed. “Anyway, a few months later, Ty came by and wanted to know if he could use the songs I’d written. He was dropping out of school and heading off on his own. I gave him what I had and wished him well. Eight months later, I got the call. Ty was about to sign a recording contract and they needed a bunch of legal stuff from me, since most of the songs for the proposed debut album were mine.”
Rennie chuckled darkly. “Helen about had a fit. We’d finally gotten back on an even keel, for the most part, and she was terrified I would get sucked back into the music scene. Plus, we would be heading off to the seminary in Saint Louis as soon as I graduated and she didn’t want anything messing that up either. So, I agreed to put all the songs under the name Rennie Martin and let that be that.”
“But it obviously didn’t end there.”
“No, it didn’t. New albums meant new songs. Before long, my work was getting attention, not to mention awards, and other artists soon wanted my services. Helen agreed to my sideline songwriting gig as long as it didn’t interfere with our new life. I suspect the royalty checks had a lot to do with that. For my part, I was fine with still keeping it all under wraps. I knew I didn’t want all the headaches that going public would bring once I became a pastor.”
“What kind of headaches?” Josie was truly baffled by the comment. “I would think a church would find it pretty cool to have a successful songwriter as a pastor.”
“For the most part, I’m sure that’s true,” He responded with a shrug. “I imagine it could have some upsides, at least at the beginning.” Rennie stopped and she could tell he was struggling with how to explain it all to her.
“But I know how congregations work and invariably the critical questions would come,” he finally continued. “Like how much additional money I was pulling in by my songwriting, or whether I should be paid a salary by the church because I’m already making too much, or even if I’m spending all my time writing songs in the office instead of working, and the like.”
“Really?” Josie was really surprised by that.
Rennie nodded. “So rather than deal with all that hassle, I just kept quiet and let Izzy keep the awards for me. Truthfully, there was no way we could have them at the house anyway and still keep it all a secret. Besides, she was already going to a lot of the awards ceremonies anyway, with her job as Lanci’s administrative assistant, so it just made sense that she could pick them up and hold on to them for me. On top of that, she’s always gotten a bigger kick out of those kinds of things than I ever have, even when the folks were alive.”
“That must have been tough, though, keeping all that a secret, especially when you were nominated for and actually won Grammy Awards.”
“Actually, it was far rougher for Helen, at least at the beginning, than for me,” Rennie replied matter-of-factly. “The first time one of my songs was nominated, I offered to take her to the ceremony out in LA. I thought it might be fun to go even though I knew there was no way in the world my song would win anything that year. But when she realized she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone why we were going or what we were going to be doing there, she refused to go. After that, it was just easier not to bring it up.”
Josie could hear the regret in his voice and it troubled her. Despite all the hurt and harm that Helen had done to him over the years, it was clear a part of Rennie still loved her. And with that sad bit of information came another realization about his string of hits. “All the songs were pretty much about her, weren’t they?”
“Yeah, writing them was really just a cheap form of therapy for me and explains why I gravitated to country music in my songwriting,” he openly admitted. “Plus, that was another reason not to tell Helen about any of the later nominations or point out the songs when they came on the radio. No need to give her something else to blow a gasket over. Lord knows I already gave her plenty of those.”
Rennie paused, clearing his throat.
Instinctively Josie snuggled in closer; knowing the words soon to follow would be painful.
“But that’s not the truly sad thing, though.” His voice, now clouded with emotion, had an even more distant quality to it. “What was always the worst for me was one simple fact: it was easy to keep her in the dark because she never seemed to care. Seriously, it’s not like I went out of my way to keep it from her. I’d even try to talk with her about it all once in a while, but she’d always walk away, totally disinterested. Truthfully, it seemed that if it didn’t impact or affect her, if it wasn’t something she could take pride in or crow about, it didn’t matter to her. It was as if I didn’t...”
With that, Rennie lapsed into silence, letting the unspoken personal implication of his statement hang in the air. Josie’s heart, meanwhile, simply ached for him.