Bye Bye Blackbird ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The year Nellis Folts was eleven years old was the year he decided he would enter the school talent contest. He chose Bye Bye Blackbird for the number he would perform, and he wouldn’t just stand there and move his lips to some stupid record the way some people did. He would actually sing the song. He asked Miss Mullendorfer, the assistant music teacher, to accompany him on the piano and she readily agreed, saying that she thought it was “simply splendid” that a boy like Nellis, who was usually so standoffish, was going to participate in something she knew was going to be “lots of fun.”
“I’m not doing it for fun,” he said. “I’m doing it for the prize money.”
That evening when Nellis told his mother at the dinner table that he was going to perform in the talent show, she was less than enthusiastic.
“Are you sure you want to be up there on the stage in front of all those people?” she asked. “They’ll laugh at you.”
“I know. They laugh at me anyway.”
“I didn’t know you could sing.”
“Well, I can.”
“I’ve never heard you.”
“I want you and father to come to the talent show. You can hear me sing then.”
“I’m sure your father will be too tired to go out after having worked all day, but I’ll try to come if it’s a night I’m free.”
“You’re free every night.”
For two weeks before the talent show, he practiced Bye Bye Blackbird every night in front of a full-length mirror in his bedroom, with hand gestures and a couple of dance steps that he made up himself. He sang in a quavery tenor that sometimes verged on the soprano:Pack up all your cares and woes. Here I go, singin’ low. Bye bye blackbird! Where somebody waits for me, Sugar’s sweet and so is she. Bye bye blackbird! No one here can love or understand me. Oh, what hard-luck stories they all hand me! So make the bed, light the light! I’ll be home late tonight. Blackbird byyyye byyyye!
(At the end of the song, he held out his arms and went down on one knee.)
For his clothes, he would wear black pants, a white shirt, and, from a trunk in the attic, a decades-old yellow sport jacket with wide shoulder pads and a red-and-yellow bow tie. Just the thing.
The night of the talent show brought with it heavy rains and thunderstorms. Nellis’s mother heard on the radio that storm warnings had been issued, but Nellis was not to be deterred. At six o’clock, one hour before the talent show was to begin, he put on his yellow plastic patrol-boy raincoat and, with his satchel containing the clothes he was going to perform in, walked the half-mile to school. He was soaked all the way through when he got there but was gratified to see that a lot of people had already shown up and taken their seats in the auditorium. The school was abuzz with excitement, in spite of the weather.
Without speaking to anyone, Nellis went into the deserted boys’ room to prepare. He took off his raincoat and set his satchel on the floor and opened it. His hair was still wet, so he took a wad of paper towels and dried it off the best he could and poured some Vitalis into his palm, rubbed his hands together and smoothed down his thick mess of dark hair. He then combed his hair exactly the way Sammy Davis Junior would have combed his if he had been there. He felt certain that anybody who owned a television set could not fail to make the comparison.
After dressing, he checked himself in the mirror and, when he was satisfied with the way he looked, especially the bow tie, he went “back stage,” where he and all the other contestants had been told to gather at seven o’clock sharp to draw their numbers out of a hat to determine in what order they would appear on stage. When he picked his number from the hat and realized he was last, his heart did a little thump-jump inside his ribcage. But no matter, he told himself. He didn’t mind being last; he would be freshest in the minds of the judges.
To begin the show, Mrs. Pepper, the music teacher, went out on the stage and waved her flabby arms to shush the audience. She was only four-and-a-half feet tall and almost as wide. Somebody in back of the auditorium whistled at her and yelled “Oh, baby!” but she pretended not to hear.
“Welcome to the annual school talent show!” Mrs. Pepper said in her whiny voice, training her myopic gaze on the middle distance. “It looks like we’ve got a capacity crowd! I’m happy to see that so many of you have braved the bad weather to be with us tonight! And I don’t think you’ll be disappointed! We’ve got a great show for you!”
The public address system squawked and sputtered, eliciting whistles and hoots from the audience.
She tapped on the microphone before continuing. “To make our competition a little more interesting,” she intoned, “our first-place winner, as decided by our three judges, will win a prize of fifty greenbacks. Our second-place winner will win twenty-five greenbacks, while our third-place winner will receive a complementary pass for dinner for two at the Lonesome Pine Restaurant and Grill on Highway 32.”
“Woo-woo-woo!” somebody in the audience yelled. Mrs. Pepper frowned for a moment before resuming her smile. “So, without further adieu,” she said, “we now bring to you our little show.”
The first contestant was Cecelia Upjohn, wearing lots of makeup, even though she was only twelve years old, and a skin-tight, glittery costume with red-white-and-blue diagonal stripes. She twirled her baton to a recording of I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, all the time with a fixed, doll-like grin on her face. When she tossed the baton high above her head, she somehow caught it without even looking at it. She finished her routine with a perfect split, one leg in front and the other behind as she went down on the floor with seemingly no effort at all. The audience rewarded her with resounding applause.
Then Ralph Krupperman with his hair the color of a new penny and Belinda Cornish took to the stage to do their Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routine. He wore a tuxedo with a swallow-tail coat and she a curly blond wig and a satiny white dress that clung to her immature body and dragged the floor. He flung her around and around at a dizzying pace to keep time with the music as the tails of his coat flapped and she tried hard to keep from falling. After a frenetic five minutes, the music ended and the routine was over. Ralph and Belinda clasped hands and smiled like onscreen lovers as they took their bows and exited stage left to polite applause.
When Curtis Bellinger came onto the stage, a questioning murmur arose from the audience because he carried a chair in one hand and a saw in the other. (What was he going to do? Saw the chair in half?) He carried the chair to the middle of the stage and set it down. Then he sat on the chair, put the saw between his knees, and, producing a violin bow, began playing Some Enchanted Evening. The audience was transfixed as the mournful sounds of the saw carried over their heads and out the doors into the rainy night. When the song was over, the audience applauded enthusiastically—more for the novelty and daring of the act than for its musicality.
(As Curtis Bellinger was leaving the stage, a huge crack of lightning caused everybody to gasp and the lights to flicker, but the lights stayed on, and the moment of danger, if that’s what it was, was forgotten in the wake of the next act.)
Three large-for-their-age girls, who looked enough alike to be sisters but weren’t, came onto the stage, their hair in snoods and dressed in women’s army uniforms. They stood side-by-side, looking silly and self-conscious as they waited for their music to begin and, when it did, they began swiveling their hips and moving their arms like marionettes. They moved their lips to Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy, while everybody (even the most naïve person in the audience) knew they weren’t really singing.
The next act was Gus Goldblatt, a fifth grader who already weighed over two hundred pounds and wore men’s clothes. His grandfather had started teaching him the accordion when he was only two years old and since that time he had become steadily more proficient with that instrument. He favored the audience with Lady of Spain, segueing smartly into I’m Just a Vagabond Lover. The audience was most appreciative.
Gus Goldblatt’s exit brought Bertha Terhune to the stage. She was dressed in a black, full-body leotard with red ribbons in her hair and what appeared to be a bedroll under her arm. She curtsied in the direction of the audience, and, spreading out the bedroll that was really a tumbling mat, began her routine. She did a series of cartwheels, then forward somersaults and backward somersaults. She jumped into the air one way and then the other, twirled, twisted, leapt, spun, and turned, all with the agility of a flea and so fast that she was only a blur. The audience hooted and whistled.
Nellis watched all the acts from the wings as he waited to go on. He stood near a window and was aware of the storm, but what the weather might or might not do was the least of his worries. He knew he could remember all the words to Bye Bye Blackbird, but what he was worried about was “putting the song over,” as they say. The audience had sat though a lot of acts. Would they be ready for his? Would they laugh at him, as his mother had said? Would they boo him off the stage? Suddenly he wanted the whole thing to be over and to be back home where it was safe and quiet. He took deep breaths, felt light in the head, and hoped he wouldn’t be sick.
Miss Mullendorfer was standing beside him with her sheet music when Mrs. Pepper came to him and told him it was time for him to go on. He took a deep breath and walked out onto the stage. When he was installed behind the microphone, he looked out at the audience and tried to smile and they looked back at him, waiting to see what he was going to do. Two hundred eyes trained just on him, waiting for him to begin. Could he remember how the song began?
When Miss Mullendorfer from the piano played the little intro she had worked out, Nellis opened his mouth to let out the first notes. That’s when the storm hit with all its force and fury. The row of windows behind the audience blew inward as if from an explosion. The audience screamed, a prolonged wail of terror, and, as if being awakened from a dream, jumped to their feet and began running in every conceivable direction, except toward the exits and safety.
Nellis was stunned. He didn’t know what was happening. He looked over at Miss Mullendorfer at the piano to see if she might give him some cue as to what he should do, but she was gone. He was all alone on the stage, grasping the microphone stand in both hands. The thing sputtered and sparked. He might have been electrocuted if the power hadn’t failed at that moment, bringing him to the reality of the situation. He was just able to make his way out of the building in the dark as the roof was picked up and deposited someplace else and the walls around him began to collapse like a house of cards.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp