She didn’t look much like Nancy. Her hair was brown, not blonde. And her nose was different, strong and straight. Nancy’s nose was the ski-jump type; the kind girls paid surgeons thousands of dollars to get.
So what made me think of her? The attitude maybe. The way she lifted her chin, the way she sang to herself. The way she walked around the playground like she owned it. At one point she wandered over to my nephew. He was in his own little world, digging a hole in the ground with a sharp stick. I had this brief, cruel wish that he’d whack her with it. Carter could be violent sometimes, the strange, brief bursts of aggression that come with the toddler territory. But she just ruffled his hair and he kept digging.
It was unsettling, how much I disliked her. A little girl who looked like Nancy, and not even a lot, just a little bit.
“We should go, buddy,” I said to Carter, even though Austen wouldn’t be back for another hour. I just needed a break from the girl, the perfect, perky little girl.
My brother came over around six. I’d just fed Carter an applesauce and there was sticky goo all over his shirt.
“It’s called a bib,” Austen said, grabbing a cloth from my sink and wiping his son.
“You didn’t leave me a bib,” I said. “And you’re welcome.”
“Sorry,” Austen said, running his hand through his hair. “Work has been crazy. Thank you for watching him.”
“Just remember this favour at Christmas time. I want a decent present,” I said. “Not one of those awful necklaces Jen makes. The last one looked like a spider web.”
“She worked hard on that. It’s stainless steel wire—she ordered it from Vancouver.”
“It looked like a sad, abandoned spider web you’d find in a dusty corner.”
“How’s the studying going?” Austen asked as he pushed a shoe onto Carter’s wiggling foot. Mentioning my drawn-out quest to get my real estate license was Austen’s go-to way of shutting me up.
“It’s going,” I said.
He rolled his eyes at me but he couldn’t say too much since I’d spent the weekend babysitting his kid.
“Good luck with it,” he said. “And thanks again.”
Without Carter to watch I had no reason not to study. I opened my book, I uncapped a pen, but I couldn’t keep my eyes on the page. I stood and grabbed my jacket, heading for the playground near my house.
The little girl was there again. Nearly Nancy. So pleased with herself. And she was a good singer too, which made it worse. Her voice was clear and high but with a solemn edge to it. Without really thinking about it I walked over to her mother.
“She’s good,” I said. “Your daughter. She has a good voice.”
The mother looked up from her phone and shrugged and glanced back down. The phone didn’t have a case, which seemed supremely arrogant to me. Like if she broke it she’d just buy another, no big deal. My own phone had a case that could withstand 7-foot drops.
I’ve never liked feeling ignored. I cleared my throat and crossed my arms over my chest. “Judy Garland. That’s who she reminds me of. Does she have any interest in singing professionally?”
The mother slipped her phone into her purse. “Paige? I don’t know. You really think she’s good?”
“I do. I have some connections in the business. I could put you in touch with the right people, if it’s something you’re interested in.”
The mother looked at Paige who was trying to climb up the slide instead of slipping down it.
“She’s eleven,” she said.
“Kids younger than her have their own YouTube channels.”
The mother tilted her head to the side.
“Just something to think about,” I said.
“I’ll give you my number,” she said, scribbling her name and her digits on a piece of paper. “I’m home on Wednesdays.”
Of course her name was something fancy like Colette. Of course she still wrote in loopy cursive. I tucked her number in my bag and glanced at Nearly Nancy one more time.
The thing about real estate is you think it’s exciting, and important, wandering through people’s homes, helping them make the most important purchase of their lives. It’s a worthy career, even if it’s not the one you dreamed of as a kid. But to get there, you have to wade through tedious shit like forms and clauses and trading practices. I read a few pages about mortgage financing before sighing and flicking on the TV. And there she was. Nancy.
Her hair was shorter, chin length, with streaks of purple threaded through. She was dancing on stage with her band, singing one of their catchier songs. I’d always done my best to avoid her after high school. We weren’t friends on social media, I turned the radio off when her songs came on, but she was inescapable. Dancing on TV, or profiled in a magazine. Reflected in the face of some random little girl.
I turned the television off. I dug through my purse until I found Colette’s number. It only took three flattering text messages to get myself invited over for tea.
Their house was the kind of home I expected them to have. It was in one of the nicer subdivisions and the colour palate was a soft gray, like the lint you pull from the dryer. Colette made me a cup of tea. She set Paige up with a cartoon in the living room while we sat at the kitchen table.
“What do you do in the business exactly?” she asked.
I’d anticipated this question. I took a long sip of tea. “I was a singer myself, initially,” I said, which was true. The best lies have a kernel of truth in them. “I was never very successful. I was in a band, briefly. Now I work for an indie record label. A and R division, part time. What sort of music does your daughter listen to?”
She waved her hand dismissively. “I don’t know. She’s always on the laptop doing who knows what.”
“You might want to broaden her tastes a little. The best artists listen to everything. Rock. Country. Folk.”
Colette grabbed a notebook from her purse and started writing the genres down.
“Do you think she could sing for me? I know it won’t be perfect but I’d like to have something to show my boss. I saw you have a piano. Do you play?”
“Paige used to take lessons. It’s mostly decorative, honestly.”
Colette called Paige from the living room and stood her by the piano. I flipped through the sheet music on the stand.
“Do you know “Somewhere Over the Rainbow?” I asked and she nodded. I set up my phone to record.
She was good. Not perfect but there was something about her voice. She was better than Nancy. She was better than me.
Colette hugged me before I left. Not a real hug, thank god, just her skinny arms giving me a gentle squeeze. Paige was back in front of the TV and didn’t say goodbye.
If I didn’t take it any further it could be a neutral event. Sure, I was in their house under false pretenses, which was fucked up, but Colette looked right into Paige’s face. At the playground she never paid much attention to her, chatting with the other moms, studying her manicured nails. Today, she’d noticed her kid, the kid felt special. I’d performed a kindness, really.
But a week later, I listened to the recording again. And she was so good and she was only eleven. She had her whole life ahead of her, an infinite number of chances. Listening to her, I felt sweaty and jealous and useless. I dialed Colette’s number without much of a plan. I just needed a distraction from my thoughts.
“How did it go? Did your boss like the recording?” Colette asked. “Paige will not stop singing. It’s a little annoying, actually,”
“Can I talk to Paige?”
There was a pause before Paige picked up the phone. “Hey,” she said in her little voice.
It was soothing to hear her talk. It reminded me that she was just a kid and it wasn’t her fault she was unusually talented, and privileged, and young.
“Did you have fun the other day?” I asked. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I’m glad. Can you hand the phone to your mother please?”
“Hello?” Colette’s voice, on the other hand, awoke the snarling, angry thing in me.
“I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” I said. “She just doesn’t have what we’re looking for.”
“Oh no. Really? Is there something we can do, or—”
“No, nothing. It happens that way sometimes. It’s a combination of things you need to really take off as an artist. Natural talent and, you know, the right environment, the right support system. Both those things have to line up.”
“I don’t understand–”
“I have to go. Thanks again for trying.”
I hung up the phone. It rang again and I ignored it. For the next few days I’d see Colette’s number pop up and I’d send her straight to voicemail.
Eventually she called from some other phone, a number I didn’t recognize. I picked it up without thinking.
“Question—are you even a talent scout?” she asked. “Are you even anyone?”
I could hear my heartbeat drumming in my ears. “I understand you’re upset—”
“What label do you work for?”
“I can’t really say.”
“Sure. Of course you can’t. Is this how you get your kicks, messing with a little girl?”
I didn’t answer.
“If you come near my daughter again, I will press charges. You can bet on that.”
I should have felt nervous, or ashamed. But I just felt alive.
I would listen to that recording sometimes. For years afterwards, something about the little voice would cheer me. And it didn’t hurt that Nancy went solo and failed spectacularly. “Empty and unimaginative” said one album review. “Trite,” said another. I printed copies of both and kept them on my fridge, front and center, where I could reread the harsh lines before getting a glass of juice or cup of milk. I was doing well, comparatively. I got my real estate license, signed on with a brokerage, moved to a town with a steady stream of buyers and sellers.
It was seven, maybe eight years later that she found me. There was a knock on my door and I opened it to find a woman standing on my porch. Big eyes, honeyed highlights, wearing a baggy green dress and a ton of silver bracelets.
“Can I help you?” I asked, surveying her peacock feather earrings, her strappy sandals. I thought maybe she was selling something, or shilling for some charity.
“Are you Ashley Garret?”
“Depends who is asking.”
“I’m Paige Carlson.”
I wanted to slam the door in her face. Instead I just stood there.
“The name isn’t ringing a bell,” I said
She stared at me. “You tricked me and my mom by pretending you were in the music business? Does that ring a bell?”
She waved her hand. “Relax, I’m not here to yell at you. I just want to talk to you for ten minutes.”
She sighed and held up her phone. On the screen there was a video of her, standing on a stage, singing and playing piano.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
I shrugged and led her into the living room.
“Do you want anything? Tea, water?” I asked, knowing if she was smart she wouldn’t drink anything I offered.
“No thanks.” She sat on my old leather recliner, her eyes scanning the room. Probably looking for some hint of eccentricity to explain why I’d been so awful to her but it was just a regular room.
“My boyfriend knows I’m here,” she said, crossing her arms.
“Okay,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You’re acting like I’m going to murder you. Just a reminder, you came to my door. What do you want?”
She brushed her fingers through her hair. “I’m not super famous,” she said. “I’m not signed or anything. But I just made a deal with a car company—they’re using one of my songs in a commercial. And I make enough through gigs and downloads to live off my music.”
She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Even though you tricked us and blew us off, I really liked singing. My mom made me listen to different artists. I started playing piano again. So, I guess, thank you? I wouldn’t have gotten into music if it weren’t for you. And I’ve also always wondered…why did you do it? Did you see something in me?”
I did see something in her, but not how she meant it. She wanted the meeting to end on a nice note, she wanted to cast me as some fairy godmother. But I was the other thing. What I saw in her was something I wanted to destroy.
I hadn’t knocked her down those years ago; I’d lifted her up. I’d enabled her dreams. She looked even more like Nancy.
“Is this a bad time?” Paige asked, pulling my focus back to her perfect, pretty face.
“I felt sorry for you,” I said. “You went to that playground every day and your mom ignored you and I thought maybe she’d pay attention to you if someone else did.”
Paige wasn’t a kid anymore. She didn’t have that same fearless attitude; there was tough, world-weariness to her. But my barb still hurt her, cutting through her defenses to wound something deep within. I saw it in her face. Her permanent smile twitched.
“Our relationship is complicated,” she said quietly, brushing a non-existent wrinkle from her dress.
She stood. “Well, for whatever reason you did it, thanks. I won’t take up any more of your day.”
She could have been great. It hovered around her – greatness. Her hippy aesthetic was distracting, a bit clownish, she’d do better to wear muted colors, properly fitted clothing. And the song she played was not in her register: lower tunes would suit her alto tones. Her lyrics were simple, cheesy. I wanted to tell her that reading poetry might improve her songwriting. I wanted to hand her books from my shelves, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith. A few nudges here and there could transform her into something incredible.
I walked her to the door. As she stepped onto the porch I grabbed her arm. A gentle touch. I said, “You’re doing really well. Don’t change a thing. Not a single thing.”
© Erin Pienaar
[This piece was selected by Dan Malakin. Read Erin’s interview]