“Siren Song,” a story by Meghan Beaudry, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 58th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.
Vector Arena, Auckland, New Zealand/Oscar Keys oscartothekeys, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
by Meghan Beaudry
Pearl was discovered on a Friday night in late June.
…..She came from a seaside town so tiny she stopped telling others its name to spare herself their confused glances. “I’m from the West Coast,” she’d say. Back then she spent her weekends slinging baskets of hush puppies and popcorn shrimp, her signature cherry red braids tied up in a ponytail. That Friday in June, she worked a double. One of the waitresses at her father’s seafood restaurant, Poseidon’s, had called in sick. The benches were overrun with hungry patrons waiting for tables, although customers were rarely short with the owner or his seven daughters. Through the din of conversation she caught a glimpse of one of her sisters motioning, eyes wide, from the karaoke machine up front. Her sisters had beautiful voices, too – like sirens on the rocks, the villagers sighed – but it was Pearl the diners asked for, her name they chanted.
…..A man in Gucci sunglasses set down his beer and looked up halfway through the first song. After the second, he handed Pearl a business card so thick and white it might have been cut from linen. Mr. U, it said. “Your voice doesn’t sound Black,” he’d said. She should have known then. But something about the diamond Rolex and the two burly men in black that hovered behind him dazzled her to silence. Pearl had never seen a recording executive before, but she could tell he was the real deal. It had been sheer luck that Mr. U had been passing through and stopped for oysters. Like the hand of fate to pluck her from this life of sweat and salt water, of the pungent odor of seaweed forever in her hair.
…..Her father protested at first. Pearl was only nineteen after all. But when he saw the determination in her eyes, he grew quiet. He couldn’t deny her talent – talent that would never be heard beyond their small town if she didn’t take this chance. In the end he gave his blessing and watched with sad eyes as she loaded her suitcase into Mr. U’s shiny Range Rover. Pearl signed and initialed all forty pages of the contract. Once inside the car Mr. U presented her with a velvet box. Inside was a tiny gramophone on a delicate gold chain, the record company’s logo engraved on the back.
…..A decade later and a world away from Poseidon’s, Pearl woke to her roommate’s snores in their cramped apartment in the city. She hung her legs over the side of the bed. The realization hit her like a sailboat’s boom to the back of her head: she could no longer feel the roll of the ocean beneath her feet.
…..Grabbing a granola bar for breakfast, Pearl hustled upstream against the businessmen flooding the sidewalk. New buildings sprouted like coral from the ground, workers climbing their scaffolding like crabs scuttling across the sand. The only apartment she could afford was a studio above a convenience store with questionable plumbing.
…..The subway swallowed Pearl up and spit her out a block from the studio an hour later. For a moment she closed her eyes, conjuring the balmy breeze and salty scent of the sea. A messenger on a bike swerved to avoid her. “Watch it, lady!” He raised a middle finger at her as he whizzed past.
…..Inside, she trudged up the familiar stairs. Past the soundproof doors. Into a booth with a music stand with a stack of sheet music. The mic reeked of fried onions. Pearl sighed.
…..Her reflection floated ghost-like on the plexiglass separating her from the soundboard. Pearl saw her features in disconnected pieces, the way the executives and assistants described her as she stood before them. Her nose: too flat and wide. Her hips: too thick. Her skin: “I don’t drink coffee that black,” Mr. U had tossed his head back and laughed.
…..But the executives’ heads snapped in her direction when she sang. Pearl’s voice rose from her body with the sweetness of the first peach of summer. Strong as the chain connecting an anchor to a ship. Rich as melted chocolate. Captured by the mic, then spliced into videos of a skinny white girl gyrating her thin hips while her blonde hair waved behind her. The first time Pearl had heard her voice emanate from Vanessa’s luscious lips, she’d blinked in surprise. Years later, she’d almost stopped thinking of her voice as her own.
…..At the control panel, Phillippe raised a hand. The sound guys changed each session, but she’d come to recognize Philippe’s soft baritone and the tattoos splayed across his dusky skin. “Check one…check one two,” Pearl said into the microphone. Phillipe spoke into the intercom connecting the two rooms. “It’s all yours.”
…..Pearl sang the notes on the page, her mind elsewhere. As a child, she would belt out melodies skipping along the beach or perched on the dock outside Poseidon’s. Sometimes tunes from the radio but more often lyrics she’d seemingly plucked from the sky. Pearl couldn’t remember the last time she sang for fun.
…..“Beautiful. Voice like a siren,” Phillippe said when she finished, even though the sound guys rarely spoke.
…..Pearl blinked. She hadn’t heard the word siren since she was a teenager. “I thought it was a bit flat in places,” she said to be contrary.
…..A hint of a smile tugged at Phillipe’s lips. “Suit yourself,” he said.
After, Pearl headed across the street to Sebastian’s. A jazz singer’s husky voice blended with cigarette smoke and the scent of bourbon. The bartender slid a highball across the bar before Pearl opened her mouth. She plunked a few bills on the counter.
…..A crumpled pack of cigarettes sat near an ashtray, its owner long gone. Pearl fished one out of the box and studied it. She glanced around for a light.
…..“You shouldn’t smoke. Hurts the vocal chords,” a soft baritone interrupted her. Phillipe leaned against the wall behind her.
…..Pearl tipped her head back and laughed. “They don’t belong to me anyway,” she said with more force than intended.
…..“Suit yourself,” Philippe shrugged. Phillippe ordered a beer.
…..“You don’t come here much,” Pearl said. A statement, not a question. Most of the people at the studio flocked to Taki’s next door, which was precisely why Pearl frequented Sebastian’s.
…..“I like a change every now and then,” Philippe said.
…..Change. The word echoed like a conch shell in Pearl’s ear. She pictured her father and her sisters, dropping fishing lines over the side of their boat. Hadn’t a change been what she wanted?
…..A bitter laugh rippled from Pearl’s throat. She tossed back the rest of her highball. Then she slid off the barstool and sauntered towards a tall man in an Armani suit across the room. The man flashed a wolf-like smile, his two pointed canine teeth visible even in the dim light. Pearl tipped her head back and laughed as the man talked about himself. She shot glances at the bar where Phillippe sat until she noticed his seat was empty. The tall man gripped Pearl’s elbow so hard she winced, but she didn’t pull away.
…..At the end of the night, Pearl stopped by the bar, but the bartender waved her away.
…..“Your tab’s been paid,” he said.
…..Pearl stared, perplexed.
…..“By the quiet guy with the tattoos,” the bartender said.
…..Halfway to the subway, she felt something in her palm and opened it. The unused cigarette stared back at her, crushed like a daisy in a child’s fist.
…..Pearl rolled out of bed late the next day, the morning sun bisecting the room in half with blinding light. Her head pounded in time to the sloshing of her stomach. The grease of the falafel stand turned her stomach as she descended the subway stairs. At the studio, she peered into the sound booth to see a blonde man with dreadlocks and a lip piercing. No Phillippe. A sinking sensation pulled at her chest. “It’s the hangover,” she muttered to herself.
…..Mr. U pulled Pearl aside after her session finished. In the ten years since he’d first heard Pearl sing, Mr. U’s peach skin remained unwrinkled, his eyes still hidden behind those Gucci sunglasses. A vampire, Pearl thought to herself. “Upstairs. Let’s talk,” he ordered.
…..The elevator reminded Pearl of a mirrored coffin. As the elevator ascended, she felt no fear. Numbness enveloped her.
…..The soundproof glass and simple architecture of the recording studio gave way to plush carpet and leather couches. In an office the size of a conference room, a blonde woman perched in a chair. Behind her at the conference table sat four men in black suit jackets. Their black-suited arms reached for the salmon and caviar platter in the middle of the table, giving the illusion of an octopus snatching morsels from the ocean floor.
…..Pearl sat in the empty chair by the blonde woman. With a start, she recognized the woman’s eyes and nose, although her limbs weren’t as twig-like as they were in the music videos. Even Vanessa didn’t look like Vanessa.
…..Mr. U was speaking. “…a juice cleanse. You’ll need to lose at least ten pounds. Then there’s cheek fillers, lips injections. We’ll pay for the procedures, of course.” Vanessa nodded and took notes on her phone, a new model. Pearl wondered if the studio had given it to her. She fingered her own cracked flip phone in her pocket.
…..Then Mr. U turned to Pearl. “It’s a hundred city tour. Pearl, you’ll sing backstage while Vanessa lip syncs out front. Phillippe will be there to smooth over any issues. We’ll cover your room and meals, plus a small stipend.”
…..“How much is she getting?” Pearl spat out the words, even though the glimmer of danger in Mr. U’s eyes told her she shouldn’t. The executive in suit jackets froze.
…..“You signed a contract.” Mr. U smiled the way a shark grins at a school of fish. Unconsciously, Pearl’s hand flew to the golden gramophone at her throat. “There’s a thousand girls out there who would kill to be you right now,” Mr. U reminded her.
…..Pearl didn’t make it to Sebastian’s that night. She was curled in the corner of one of the recording booths sobbing when she heard a soft baritone. “Hey.” Phillippe crouched down to look Pearl in the eye.
…..“What do you want?” Pearl snapped.
…..“To know you,” Phillippe said simply. “You want me to leave?”
…..“No,” Pearl whispered.
…..“What do you want?” Phillippe asked her.
…..Pearl didn’t know what she was going to say until she choked out the words. “To be seen.” She thought of her seven sisters fighting over two bathrooms at home, of the long hours at Posiedon’s. How what she’d thought had been her ticket out was really a trap door.
…..Phillippe sunk to the floor beside her, a quiet steady presence until Pearl stood to leave.
The tour bus smelled like old shoes and popcorn. Vanessa’s airbrushed smokey eyes stared from the side of the bus, bigger than the windows. The real Vanessa slumped near the front, holding an ice pack to her swollen face. Loose skin sagged when she moved her arms. Boney shoulder blades jutted from her back.
…..The night before, Pearl had stuffed her suitcase full of clothes and shoes. A pair of sparkly green heels popped against the black dress and pants. Black: the color musicians wear to disappear. She set next month’s rent on the table for her roommate with a note not to renew her portion of the lease. Her roommate could keep the furniture she’d hauled off the curb.
…..Mr. U had arranged the tour to start in a smaller city. “To iron out the kinks first,” he’d explained. Still, throngs of fans camped outside the outdoor theatre where they would perform first. The chant rose from the crowd as the tour bus sped by. “Vanessa! Vanessa! Vanessa!”
…..After the soundcheck, Pearl scrolled through her phone while the makeup artists fussed over Vanessa. Fake eyelashes so thick Vanessa could sweep the floor with them. An oversized chain around her throat that read Vanessa in glittery letters.
…..“You look beautiful,” Phillipe said to Pearl as he passed by the green room.
…..“Like that matters,” Pearl snorted. She waited backstage in her place behind the curtain. Beside her, the wall was plywood painted black. She fingered her keys in her pocket. She knew she shouldn’t, but when no one was looking, she pulled them out. She scratched her name into the wood, flecks of black paint floating to the floor. Pearl. A sign she had existed somewhere in the universe. In her memories later, Pearl would see the cheap wood and the uneven scrawl of her name. A moment later, Vanessa would walk by without so much as a glance at Pearl. Pearl’s gaze would travel from her mark on the wall to Vanessa’s name glittering among her blonde locks. The message wasn’t lost on her.
…..The concert was delayed thirty minutes because Vanessa passed out in the hairdresser’s chair. Assistants rushed in with B12 shots and zero calorie coke. When Vanessa finally stumbled onstage, Pearl rose from her spot backstage and tapped her mic to test it.
…..“Pleasant Valley is my favorite city!” Vanessa screeched into the mic to a roar of applause. Pearl watched from the monitor backstage.
…..The intro to the first piece started. Guitar chords so imprinted in Pearl’s memory she could hear them in her dreams. She tapped the mic again, then shifted behind the curtain in her sparkly green heels – her own tiny rebellion.
…..Pearl closed her eyes, then began to belt out Vanessa’s signature hit – “Liberated Woman.”
…..Behind the performance the public sees is an undercurrent of rules every professional musician knows. Fifteen minutes early to rehearsal is on time. On time is late. Show up prepared, even if that means practicing eight hours a day. Most importantly, never stop in the middle of a performance, no matter what.
…..Eyes closed, Pearl sang. She barely felt the rush of cool air on her cheeks in the stuffy backstage area. She didn’t hear the shocked silence of the crowd, followed by confused murmuring. She opened her eyes as her last note hung in the air. The heavy velvet curtain had opened. Vanessa stared round-eyed, clutching her dummy mic. Fifty thousand faces turned toward Pearl, but the only one she saw was Pillippe’s. In the sound booth in the back, he stood beaming. His lone claps echoed through the venue.
…..The stage manager shoved Pearl in the direction of the green room, sputtering excuses into her mic. A whirl of images and sound ensued. The endless black of the backstage area. Vanessa’s bleached blonde hair. Pearl’s understudy’s happy squeal. Mr. U’s scarlet face, the hiss of his words. “Get out of my sight and never come back.”
…..The words every musician feared. But Pearl felt as if a vice had released its grip on her heart. She retrieved her patched suitcase from the bus, then trudged towards the bus stop when a taxi stopped beside her.
…..A tattooed hand waved from the back window. “Need a lift?”
…..“Where to?” the driver asked when Pearl climbed inside.
…..“Just drive. Don’t stop until we hit the ocean,” she said.
…..“Suit yourself,” Phillippe smiled.
…..Two hours, a train and a bus later, the sea glittered in the darkness like obsidian. Pearl’s bare toes sunk into the sand. Phillipe waded into the chilly water slowly, but Pearl leapt off the edge of the pier. The salt water soothed her body like a balm. Hours later at the hotel, she glanced in the mirror. The delicate chain around her neck had snapped, the golden gramophone forever lost beneath the waves.
…..They made their way down the coast in a pickup Phillippe borrowed from a relative. The wind ruffled the sleeves of Phillippe’s T-shirt and tossed Pearl’s braids – still cherry red after all these years. At night, they slept in separate beds in cheap hotels. When the neon trident of Poseidon’s came into view late one evening, Pearl wept with joy.
…..“I loved you from the moment I saw you,” Phillippe told Pearl months later. They’d moved into a loft apartment on the coast an hour away from the big city. Pearl picked up shifts at a clothing boutique while Phillippe found work at a recording studio. The smiling faces of Pearl’s sisters, nieces, and nephews adorned the walls in frames. Phillippe built them. Pearl decorated them with seashells.
…..Away from the stress of the recording studio, Pearl could see past her pain to the man beside her each night. From Phillippe’s quiet exterior emerged witty one-liners and sharp turns of phrase. He loved shrimp, but refused to eat lobster because they were cooked alive. He called his mother every Sunday. When he said “suit yourself,” he really meant “I love you.” For Pearl, love crept on slowly, like the tide coming in, until one day she looked at his gentle eyes, the tattoo of a wave on his bicep, and realized she was blissfully underwater.
…..The wedding took place on the beach at sunset. Pearl’s father walked her down the aisle, her sparkly green shoes peeking out from under her cloud-white dress. She wore her hair in an intricate updo with red satin ribbons woven through. One of Pearl’s nieces scattered daisies. At the altar, Phillippe blinked back tears as the pastor spoke. Phillippe kissed her. They jumped the broom.
…..Pearl had avoided mirrors for years. She never wore makeup. Even after all those years, Mr. U’s voice seemed to whisper in her ear. I don’t drink coffee that black. That changed the day she and Phillippe held their infant daughter in the hospital. “Marcelline,” Pearl whispered as her baby wrapped a hand around her finger. The same wide nose, the same dusky skin. How could she have ever thought they were anything less than beautiful?
…..Pearl hadn’t sung in years. But sometimes, walking with Marcelline along the shore, she would feel a song rising in her. The notes fell from her lips as she cooked dinner, her daughter giggling in her walker. Singing calmed her anxiety the day Pearl and Phillippe stood by the car and watched Marcelline racing towards the school, the girl’s tiny beaded braids clinking.
…..Years passed. Arpeggios, scales, and improvised lyrics filled their home. Pearl volunteered to coach her daughter’s junior high production of Phantom of the Opera. The students stared wide-eyed when Pearl sang Christine’s part to demonstrate.
…..“It’s just my mom,” Marcelline rolled her eyes, although anyone could see she was flushed with pride.
…..The month of Pearl’s forty-eighth birthday, she often caught Phillippe and Marcelline whispering. They’d part with mischievous smiles when Pearl entered the room. Pearl spent most of that month chasing a song she had stuck in her head. She sung in the car on the way to the clothing boutique, while making her special shrimp scampi, while watching the tide roll in.
…..Marcelline brought Pearl a crab meat omelet on a tray the morning of Pearl’s birthday. “Me and Dad have something for you,” she said, the secret bursting from her lips.
…..Phillippe set his laptop in front of Pearl. A music video played. “Siren Song,” the caption read. Pearl gasped. It was her voice. Her song. Video clips of her walking along the beach accompanied the music. The wind tossed her red braids behind her as the ocean lapped at her feet.
…..A sly smile crossed Phillippe’s face.
…..He had hidden microphones in the sun visor of Pearl’s car and under the stove hood. A microphone peeked out of the canister of flour on the kitchen counter. Pearl had thought her daughter had been texting the many times they’d walked along the beach together. Marcelline had actually been filming.
…..“It’s beautiful,” Pearl whispered. Her eyes swam with tears.
…..“You’re beautiful,” Phillippe kissed the top of her head.
…..“Can I upload this?” Marcelline asked later that day.
…..“Of course, honey,” Pearl shrugged.
…..Phillippe left for work. Marcelline raced out the door to catch the bus at the last second. As Marcelline prepared to leave for her shift at the clothing boutique, she heard an intermittent buzzing from the kitchen. She searched the kitchen, finally locating Marcelline’s phone under a napkin. Notifications crowded the screen. In half an hour, “Siren Song” had gained a thousand likes.
…..By the end of the week, Pearl’s phone was ringing off the hook. Agents and executives asking her if she had any other material. Venues begging to book her. Pearl stalled. She kept her phone off most of the day. She stopped checking her voicemail.
…..“I can’t go back there,” she told Phillippe.
…..Phillippe paused. “Do you think it could be different this time? What if you actually had an agent you trusted?”
…..Pearl remembered Mr. U’s sinister smile. The danger glittering in his eyes. The way he’d never seen her as anything more than a set of parts. “Maybe…I don’t know.”
…..Phillippe came home early from work the next day. Marcelline glanced up from her phone.
…..Pearl frowned and looked up from the wooden frame she’d been decorating with sea glass. “Work let you out early?
…..“I quit,” Phillippe said. “I want to be your agent.”
…..Pearl’s jaw dropped. She sputtered excuses. Phillippe answered them in a gentle voice.
…..“But I’m nearly fifty! Who would want to hear an old woman sing?”
…..Marcelline glanced at her phone. “Five million people, apparently.”
…..“But what about Marcelline?” Pearl asked.
…..Marcelline sighed dramatically. “Mom. I’m leaving for college in the Fall. Go sing.”
…..Phillippe bent to kiss the top of Pearl’s head. “Suit yourself. But your star is climbing and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
…..Years after the initial late show performances, the sold out tours, and the two Grammys she’d won, Pearl would walk on stage to the roar of a crowd. Phillippe would beam from the front row.
…..In a sparkly green dress and her signature red braids, she’d reach for her mic. “Pleasant Valley, I’m excited to be here!” The band behind Pearl launched into their opening chords. Then Pearl’s voice rang out, as strong and true as a lighthouse in a storm.
…..After, Pearl would head towards the green room. She’d pause for a second by the black plywood and look for her name etched into the wood. She thought this was the same theatre, but there had been so many of them – a different city every three days. Then a gold frame caught her eye. Pearl’s hand flew to her mouth. Inside the frame was a piece of old plywood. Someone had carefully filled in the letters of her name with solid gold.
Meghan Beaudry began writing as part of her rehabilitation from brain trauma in 2014 and simply never stopped. Her work has been published in Hippocampus, Ravishly, Folks at Pillpack, Al Jazeera, and the Huffington Post. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. In 2020, she was selected as winner of the Pen 2 Paper Creative Writing Contest in fiction, and she is a regular contributor to Lupus.net. When she’s not writing, Meghan can be found cuddling with her rescue dogs, drinking bubble tea, and teaching students ages three to ninety-three how to play the violin.
Click here to read “Mouth Organ” by Emily Jon Tobias, the winning story in the 58th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
Click here for information about the upcoming Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest