The High Notes
Iris Cooper was small for her age. She looked more like ten than twelve, in her cut-off jeans with ragged edges, a pink T-shirt, and scuffed pink cowboy boots her father, Chip, had bought at a yard sale.
She stood watching the horses tethered under a tree on a blazing hot day in Lake City, Texas, kicking pebbles with the toe of her cowboy boot.
She was humming to herself, as she always did. She could hear music in her head. She composed songs on her father’s guitar, and they sounded pretty good. She’d gone to school in Lake City for four months. She’d been to three schools so far that year. Her father liked to move around a lot, looking for opportunities to make some money. He got tired of the towns they went to pretty fast. He rented a room for each of them in someone’s house, stayed for a few months, and then they moved on. Iris liked it when they stayed in a town with a church. She could sing with the choir, and they were always happy to have her. She could hit the high notes better than anyone else. Once they heard her sing, they let her stay. She could go to the church socials and eat pot roast and fried chicken, potato salad or mashed potatoes. The rest of the time, they lived on fast food, and whatever her father could afford that day, sometimes just a can of beans or some chili.
Her name had been prophetic. She had deep blue eyes, the color of an iris, and a mass of soft blond hair that framed her face. She wore it in a braid that she could do herself.
Her mother, Violet, had left her and her father when she was two. He never told her, but she’d once heard him say that Violet was killed during a bar fight in East Texas after she left. She and her boyfriend had been at the bar when someone pulled out a gun, shot into the crowd during the fight, and killed them both. She and Chip had a rocky marriage. And when she left Chip, it was easier to leave Iris with him. Iris didn’t remember her, so she didn’t miss her. You couldn’t miss someone you’d never known. But she missed having a mother, like other kids. Chip had grown up as an orphan, living with two unmarried uncles who paid as little attention to him as possible, and made him sleep outside when they brought women home. Chip had left them at sixteen, and never saw them again. He got work wherever he could find it doing odd jobs, and used to ride the bulls and broncos in the rodeo, until he got trampled by a bull and hurt his leg. He walked with a limp now, and his rodeo days were over. Iris liked going to rodeos with him. Sometimes he saw old friends. They lived now from the work he picked up wherever he found it, tending bar, doing carpentry, working on a ranch when they needed extra help. He always found something, and when there were no jobs, they moved on to another town, and started all over again. Iris’s dream was to stay in one town for a long time, like other people, and go to the same school for years at a time. Her father said they’d settle down one day, but they hadn’t yet. They’d been roaming around the small towns in Texas for the last ten years. She wrote a song about it that she played on his guitar.
She was still watching the horses when Chip came out of the house where they were staying, and told her to get in his truck. They were going for a ride. It was an old green truck he’d had for as long as she could remember. It got them from one town to the next, with everything they owned in boxes tied up in the back, a plastic sheet over them, secured with ropes.
She hopped onto the passenger seat, and he got in and started the engine. They drove off a minute later, down a back road in the direction of the town. She never asked where they were going. It didn’t really matter. She watched the cattle and the horses as they drove past them. They stopped at a bar just outside of town. A red neon sign read “Harry’s Bar.” Chip parked and turned off the engine, and looked at her.
“Stay here. I’ll come and get you,” he said, and she nodded, and turned the radio on after he left. He had parked under a tree and the air was still and hot. There was no air-conditioning in the truck, and Iris watched as he limped into the bar. She wondered if he had gone in to have a beer, or if he was looking for work. They’d been eating canned beans again, so she knew he was short of money. If he didn’t find work soon, they’d be moving on again. She hoped they wouldn’t have to. She liked it here. The woman they rented rooms from was nice to her. She had a granddaughter the same age who was bigger than Iris, and she gave Iris her old clothes sometimes when her granddaughter outgrew them. Iris had never had anything new to wear. They got all her clothes at yard sales, secondhand shops, and church bazaars.
Chip Cooper limped up to the bar and glanced at the heavyset blond waitress. Her hair had black roots, but she had a friendly smile.
“Is Harry here?” he asked her, and she cocked her head toward the kitchen.
“He’s fixing something. He’ll be back in a minute. The dishwasher’s broken. Coffee?” They served lunch and dinner. It was early to start drinking, although some did. Chip wanted a beer, but settled for a cup of coffee while he waited, and drank it standing at the bar. There was a small stage set up at the back of the room, and once in a while they had a live band. The ranch hands liked it, and when they had live music it drew a fair crowd.
Harry came back to the bar ten minutes later, wiping his hands on a rag, and told the waitress he’d fixed the dishwasher. He glanced at Chip. He’d seen him there before.
“Hey, how’re you doing?” Chip asked him. They had an ancient air conditioner, which kept the place only slightly cooler than the temperature outside. “You’ve got a treat in store,” Chip told him. Harry was short and stocky, bald, and somewhere in his fifties. His bar did well. They got a good crowd on the weekends. Chip had noticed that himself, which was why he was here.
“Yeah, how do you figure that?” Harry asked him with a suspicious glance.
“I’ve got a kid whose voice your customers will never forget. She can sing anything they want to hear. She’s just a girl, but she sings better than any woman on the radio. She’ll be a big star one day.” Harry didn’t look enthused at the prospect.
“How old is she?” Harry asked him, and Chip hesitated.
“She’s twelve, but you forget it when you hear her. She can hit the high notes like nobody else.”
“I can’t have a twelve-year-old singing in a bar,” Harry said, visibly annoyed at the suggestion. Pearl, the waitress, grinned and disappeared into the kitchen to load the dishwasher Harry had just repaired. They needed a new one, but he was keeping the old one alive. Harry liked making money, he just didn’t like spending it. Pearl was still smiling at the idea of a twelve-year-old singing at his bar. That was never going to happen. Chip had the wrong guy for that.
“I’ve got her with me, if you want to have a listen,” Chip persisted. “She doesn’t need to hang around. I can bring her in right before she starts, and get her out as soon as she’s finished.” Harry could just imagine some tricked-out kid, wearing an inch of makeup, and dressed like a chorus girl from Vegas, none of which appealed to him at all. He didn’t want every pedophile in Texas hanging out at his bar. He was a decent guy, and ran a respectable establishment. Families came for Sunday dinner, not just ranch hands wanting to get drunk. “Just let her sing you one song, you’ll see what I mean.”
“I can’t hire a kid that age to sing here. It’s not right,” Harry said stubbornly, but Chip looked like he wouldn’t leave until Harry finally heard her. There were no customers at that hour, and just to get rid of Chip, Harry finally agreed to hear her. “Okay. Where is she?”
“Outside, in my truck.”
“In this heat? Are you crazy? You got air-conditioning in your truck?” Chip shook his head, and was already halfway to the door. He was at the truck in a few long uneven strides, with his limp. Iris was sitting cross-legged on the seat, red-faced from the heat and singing along with the music on the radio.
“C’mon,” he said when he opened the door. “I got you an audition.”
“For what?” She looked surprised. She’d sung in churches and at church socials, but never at a bar.
“They have a setup for live music in the back.” He took a boom box from the floor behind his seat, and Iris hopped out, and followed him back into the bar. She was flushed from the heat. Pearl poured her a Coke and handed it to her as soon as she saw her, while Harry stared at her.
“She’s twelve?” he asked. She looked more like nine or ten, and she wasn’t decked out in makeup and sexy clothes as he had feared. She looked like a normal, ordinary kid. “What’s your name?” he asked her in a kind voice.
“Iris.” She smiled at him and took a long sip of the ice-cold Coke, and thanked Pearl for it.
“Your dad says you have a knockout voice.” She looked suddenly shy.
“I like to sing.”