"Seems like an asshole to me."
"Yeah, well, you pass around good shit and give out backstage passes to major shows, you get a little leeway in the personality department, okay? You invited me here and you're buying the beer. Just don't embarrass me."
He wheeled himself around without waiting for an answer. Cam had disappeared inside the club. Probably gone to wax his guitar or tune his surfboard or something.
Garrett flashed his blue handicapped placard and made some noise and got us back to the front of the line, then inside.
The Cactus Cafe was an unlikely music venue, just a long narrow room off the corner of the Union lobby, a stage not much bigger than a kingsized bed, a little bar in back that served beer and wine and organically correct snacks. Not much in the way of atmosphere, but for fifteen years this had been one of the best places in Austin to hear small bands and solo acts. In Austin that was saying a lot.
I followed Garrett through the crowd. He drove over as many feet as he could getting past the bar and to the far wall. I had to stand next to him, pressing against the thick burgundy drapes and hoping the window didn't open and spill us all out into the rain on Guadalupe Avenue. I had enough room only if I used one foot and kept my Shiner Bock close to my chest.
"Good crowd," I said.
"I caught her last month at the Broken Spoke," Garrett said. "You wait."
I didn't have to. Just as Garrett was about to say something else applause and hoots started up behind us. The band emerged from the back room and began pressing through the crowd.
First onstage was the pudgy, whitebearded man from the photo on Milo's wall. Willis, Miranda's dad. He looked like a Texas version of Santa Claus—hair and whiskers the colour of wet cement, a jolly red face, a well fed body stuffed into Jordache jeans and a beige collar less shirt. He limped onto the stage with a cane, then substituted a standup bass for it.
Next came Cam Comptom, looking not overjoyed. He stared out at the audience grudgingly, like he was afraid they were all going to pester him for autographs. When he plugged in his Stratocaster he put a blue pick in his mouth along with several frizzy strands of his hair.
After him came a mousy librarianlooking woman who was apparently Julie Kearnes'
replacement on the fiddle. Then an elderly railthin drummer—that would be Ben French. Then a fortyish acoustic guitar player with a darkcheckered shirt and black jeans and a black Stetson that was slightly too small for his head—Brent, Miranda's older brother.
Miranda herself was not in the lineup.
Daddy Santa Claus leaned on his bass and straightened his straw hat and waved at one of the older couples in the audience. Willis might've been standing on his front porch picking for a few friends, or doing an impromptu hoedown at the local Elks Club.
The rest of the band looked stiff, nervous, like their families were being held at gunpoint in the back room.
After a few minutes of general cord fumbling and string plucking, the musicians all looked expectantly at Miranda's brother Brent.
He came up to the mike uncertainly, mumbled "Howdy," then lowered his head so you couldn't see anything except the brim of his black Stetson. Without warning he started strumming his guitar like he was afraid it might get away from him. His dad the bass player, undaunted, looked over at the others, smiled, and mouthed: "Ah one, two, three—"
The rest of the band came in and started grinding through an instrumental version of
"San Antonio Rose." . The fiddle player sawed out the melody in a watery but fairly competent fashion.
The crowd clapped, but not very enthusiastically. Many of them kept glancing toward the back of the room.
Nobody onstage looked like they were having an exceptionally good time except for Willis Daniels, who tapped his good foot and plucked his bass and smiled at the audience like he was totally deaf and this was the best damn thing he'd ever heard.
The band lurched through a few more numbers—an anaemic polka, a version of
"Faded Love" during which Cam Compton had a flashback and went into a Led Zep
pelin solo, then Brent Daniels' vocal of "Waltz Across Texas." Brent's voice wasn't bad, I decided after the second verse. None of the band members were bad, really. The drums were steady. The bass solid. Cam would've made a better rock 'n' roller but he obviously knew his scales. Even the substitute fiddler didn't miss a note. The players just didn't go together very well. They weren't much of a group. They definitely weren't worth a fivedollar cover.
The audience started to fidget. I wondered if there'd been a mistake. Maybe they'd all thought Jerry Jeff or Jimmie Dale was playing tonight. That might explain it.
Then somebody at the bar gave a good "yeehaw" as Miranda Daniels came out from the back room wearing all black denim and carrying a tiny Martin guitar. The applause and whistling increased as Miranda squeezed her way through the audience.
She looked like she did in the press release photos— petite, pale, curly black hair. She wasn't knockout beautiful by any means, but in person she had a kind of awkward, sleepy cuteness that the photos didn't convey.
The band put an abrupt stop to their waltz across Texas when Miranda got onstage.
She smiled tentatively into the lights—just a hint of her dad's crinkles around her eyes—then straightened her black shirt and plugged in her Martin.
She was definitely cute. The men in the audience would be looking at her and thinking it might not be a terrible thing to be cuddled up with Miranda Daniels under a warm quilt. That was my impartial guess, anyway.
Daddy Santa started an uptempo bass line going, tapping his foot like crazy, and the audience started clapping. Brent's rhythm guitar came in, more sure than before, then the drums. Miranda was still smiling, looking down at the floor but swaying a little to the music. She tapped her foot like her father did. Then she brushed her hair behind her ear with one hand, took the microphone, and sang: "You'd better look out, honey—"
The voice was amazing. It was clear and sexy and overpowering, not a hint of reservation. But it wasn't just the voice that nailed me to the wall for the next thirty minutes. Miranda Daniels became a different person— nothing tentative, nothing awkward. She forgot she was in front of an audience and sang every emotion in the world into the microphone. She broke her heart and fell in love and snared a man and then told him he was a fool in one song after another, hardly ever opening her eyes, and the lyrics were typical country and western cornball but coming from her it didn't matter.
Toward the end of the set the band dropped away and Miranda did some acoustical solos, just her and her Martin. The first was a ballad called "Billy's Senorita," about the Kid from his Mexican lover's perspective. She told us what it was like to love a violent man and she made us believe she'd been there. The next song was even sadder—"The Widower's TwoStep," about a man's last dance with his wife, with references to a little boy. It was unclear in the lyrics how the woman died, or whether the boy died too, but the impact was the same no matter how you interpreted it.
Nobody in the cafe moved. The other band members could've packed up and left for the night and nobody would've noticed at that point. Most of the band looked like they knew it, too.
I glanced over at Cam Compton, who had come to sit next to Garrett in a chair some woman had gladly given up for him. As Cam listened to Miranda his expression slipped from amused disdain into something worse— something between resentment and physical need. He looked at Miranda the way a hungry vegetarian might look at a Tbone. If it was possible to like him less, I liked him less.
At the break the musicians dissipated into the audience. Miranda escaped into the back room. I was trying to figure out the best way to get in to talk to her when Cam Compton made up my mind for me. He downed what must have been the fourth beer someone had bought for him, got up unsteadily, and told Garrett, "Time I had a talk with that girl."
"Wait a minute," I said.
Cam pushed me into the curtains. I didn't have room or time to do anything about it.
When I got to my feet again Garrett said, "Uhuh, little bro. Cool it, now." Then he saw my eyes and said, "Shit."
Cam was moving toward the back room like a man with a purpose. A woman got in Cam's way to tell him how great he was and he pushed her into somebody at the bar.
I followed Cam like I was a man with a purpose too. I was going to beat the living crap out of him.
The back room of the Cactus Cafe was not exactly the place to go to escape claustrophobia. Crates of organically correct snacks and kegs of beer were stacked to the ceiling along either side, and the back was an explosion of paperwork that had completely overrun the manager's desk and was now crawling up the wall by way of thumb tacks and overflowing onto the floor. Whatever free space might've been left in the corners was now piled with the band's instrument cases.
In the centre of the room Miranda Daniels and a blond woman who'd been in the audience were just sitting down at a card table when Cam Compton barged in, followed by me, followed by the club manager. If anybody else wanted to follow him they were out of luck. There wasn't even room to close the door.
A lot happened in a very short time. Miranda looked up at us, startled. The woman who was with Miranda rolled her eyes and said, "I don't believe this," then started to get up, fumbling with a canister of Mace on her key chain.
The manager tapped my shoulder hard and said, "Excuse me—"
Cam walked over to Miranda, grabbed her wrist, and started pulling her up out of her chair. He was smiling, talking almost under his breath falsely calm and sweet the way you might coax a naughty dog out from under the house so you could whack it hard.
"Come on, darlin'," he said. "Come talk to me outside."
The blonde cursed and tried to untangle her Mace and muttered "you son of a bitch"
several times. Miranda was saying Cam's name and trying to stay calm and get down low so she wouldn't be pulled toward him.
"Excuse me!" the manager said again.
There were more people outside the doorway now, trying to see into the room—Miranda's brother, her father, a few other guys from the audience who smelled a possible fight. They were all asking what the hell was going on and pushing on the manager who was in turn pushing on me.
Miranda glanced nervously at me, not having a clue who I was or why I was in line to abuse her next, then went back to reasoning with Cam while she pried at his fingers on her wrist, telling him to please calm down.
Cam said, "Just come on outside for a little bit, sweetheart. Just come on out."
The blonde was still having no luck with her Mace. It was either wait for her to get it free or do something myself. I decided on the latter.
I grabbed Cam Compton by his frizzy blond hair, yanked him back from Miranda, and slammed his head into a beer keg.
I'm not sure whether the lovely metallic sound came from the keg or Cam's skull, but it stopped him from pestering Miranda pretty effectively. His legs folded into praying position and his face hit the keg again on his way down to the floor. He curled into foetal position on the linoleum, squinting and trying to figure out how to close his mouth.
Miranda's blond friend stared at me. She had just gotten her Mace out. She pointed at me, then looked at Cam on the floor, realized I wasn't a target, and said, "Shit!"