Updated: Feb 13
I got an email from my college voice teacher one afternoon -- she was wondering if she could refer me to a local composer, as he was seeking someone of my voice type to workshop his new compositions. I said certainly!
I was emailed by him the next day, a Mr. Dall Wilson, with a description of his project and inquiries about when we could schedule an audition/interview. An afternoon was selected for the next week. He said sheet music would be provided for me at the meeting, so all the preparation I could do was stalk him on the internet.
I searched Facebook and found nothing. On Google, an IMDB account came up, but had no picture, no biography, no useful information whatsoever -- only a short list of some YouTube videos, all of which contained a slideshow of photos, videos, and artwork set to orchestrations of midi instruments. They weren't terrible compositions, but they weren't inspirational either, and the production quality was awful. I wanted this to be good, though! How cool would it be, to be on an original cast recording of a...vaguely described operetta-cantata-musical-thingie?
Dall sent me an address, and on the day of, I dressed like one would for any job interview, and hit the road. A bright January sun made me squint as I looked for house numbers in a downtown Raleigh neighborhood I'd barely been to before. The homes were interspersed with commerce, and I assumed our meeting would be in some sort of studio or office space. Yet none of the address numbers seemed to match his. I kept pulling U-turns and putting along in the righthand lane, straining to read mailboxes passing by.
One house was more unkept than the others. The lawn was three feet high, the rusty gate swung crookedly on a broken hinge, and the blinds were pulled in every window. I passed it without consideration several times -- until I noticed the number I was looking for would've been that house, if it had had a number. The house to the right of it was one below, the house to the left was one higher. I supposed that must be it.
I parallel parked across from the broken gate, and a tall, dark haired, gangly man opened the front door, wearing khakis and a brown striped sweater. An obese Jack Russell bounded through a tunnel in the grass to meet me.
"Hello, you must be Jessika," he extended his hand and inspected me with deep set dark eyes.
"Yes, nice to meet you!"
"And this is Spinner," he gestured towards the pup almost too rotund to stand on his own four paws.
"Listen," he continued. "The neighbors are quite fussy about parking on the street, something about obstructing the view of the houses..."
The view of this crumbling old house? I thought.
"...so would you mind going down the driveway of that house --" he gestured towards the one on the right, "--and park on the side of this house? We have agreed to share it. You'll see."
"Sure," I returned to my bright red car and pointed it in the direction Dall had specified. The driveway turned out to be quite steep of a decline. Down there my car was completely hidden from the road. I had to walk back up the hill to the front lawn to enter the house. I was beginning to feel uneasy.
Oh boy, you picked the wrong day to look nice, a voice whispered at the back of my brain.
The house had one floor, plus a basement, which my car was now parked beside. It was poorly maintained, like the lawn and overgrown bushes and trees, and lined in cedar, which was dark and badly in need of power washing. I let myself through the hanging gate and Dall led me to the front door, just under a narrow porch.
I halted on the threshold as if I'd walked into a wall. The bright winter sun never penetrated this house, with all the curtains drawn, and Dall had no lights on. I was completely blind while my eyes adjusted, and was hit by the suffocating smell of ammonia.
Dall turned towards me to gesture down the hall and, not wanting to be rude, I stifled my reaction to step inside.
The foyer was a hallway that turned right, then left. In the corner was a mirror, set so you could see someone who might be rounding the blind turn -- but why? Aside from the mirror the foyer was totally empty -- no furniture, no rug, no pictures on the wall -- just dark wood paneling from the 1970s making the unlit hall even gloomier.
I rounded the bend and stood in the doorway of a living room. Though my eyes began to water from the sting of toxic fumes, I blinked aggressively to assess my surroundings. More empty wood paneling walls, all hardwood floors. Some cobwebs. There was a closed door immediately to my right. To my left was the only piece of furniture: a tattered antique couch, covered in pee and poo stained sheets. Spinner sprinted into a leap and landed squarely on the only clean patch left. Was he doing his doggie business all over this house and that's why it smelled? Or was there something more horrific going on here? My throat was beginning to close from the burning smell of stale urine, which was exponentially stronger the further into the house I went.
How am I supposed to be able to sing? I wondered. Still, I put on my poker face.
Dall suggested I join him in what could be a breakfast nook, at a plain, small, round wooden table that had two dusty wooden chairs. In the center of it lay five or six pages of sheet music. I took the chair closest to the exit and sat erect, with my purse in my lap. I don't know how I maintained casual conversation.
The kitchen was through a doorway in front of me, dusty, old-fashioned, and completely empty from what I could see at my vantage point. Behind my chair was the only window not covered up --and the only source of light. It opened to a weathered, vacant deck, overlooking a thick growth of trees directly behind the house. On either side of the rectangular deck hung a bed sheet, tied just so, to block the side neighbors from view. They flapped creepily in the slight winter wind.
What is he hiding!? my head screamed. He had me park my car out of sight, no one could see in the windows, he blocks the porch, and you couldn't even smell a fresh mass grave over this suffocating piss -- even if there were one in the basement!!!
He sat down opposite me, watching me intently with his hollowed eyes.
"Let me tell you about this piece..." he began with his undignified yet educated voice, referencing the sheet music.
"Alright," I responded with my best tough-customer vibe.
The chart had only the melody typed out, and lyrics. There were no chord symbols, there was no piano part, nor any clues to indicate what the other instruments might be doing. How was I supposed to learn this music totally out of context? I'd noticed that in this empty, poisonous house where I thought I'd be auditioning, there was no piano. Neither was there a keyboard...nor speakers nor stereo nor CD player nor computer or anything! How was he going to demonstrate this piece for me? How was I supposed to audition on it?
I am normally one to give people the benefit of the doubt, but by now it was impossible to believe there could be a logical explanation for this. None of this dark, vacant, urine-soaked environment was acceptable.
Dall steadily observed my reactions as he continued talking.
OVERPOWER HIM, my intuition blared. Do anything you have to do to get out of here alive. Overpower him.
I sat up straighter. I squared my shoulders to face him directly. I willed my flighty eye contact to stare him down. I inched forward to the edge of my chair.
Overpower him. It became the chant of my inner dialogue.
I leaned forward, and responded aggressively with the full force of my intellect to his questions. No more Miss Chatty Charming Conversationalist trying to people-please him for a gig.
I remembered I'd been given a four-inch switch blade from the crazy producer of a band I used to work for (read about him here). He insisted I'd need it in case I found myself unescorted, since I played so many gigs that went late downtown. At the time I'd thought it totally wack, but I put it in my purse and left it there, not sure of what else to do with it. Today I was extremely comforted to still have it, and I reached into my bag to "get some chapstick". I kept my hand inside my purse in my lap, gripping the handle, slowly opening and closing the blade to boost my confidence.
I did not retain a word he said. That character this, this plotline that, the musical influences of Spain and such-and-such... I refused to let my speaking voice reveal the raw hoarseness of my throat. My lungs burned with every inhale. I wanted to take back the hours of my life that I'd wasted there, to sprint back to my old reality. Yet I knew if I were too quick to leave, I would betray my anxiety and reveal how I'd been playing him to escape unharmed, with no intention of ever coming back. But if making him trust that I would return is what would get him to let me go, then that's what I would make him believe.
One hour dragged into two. How long could I keep up this performance? His body language was relaxing as I gained his trust, and his voice flowed more easily, so perhaps my plan was working. I wanted him to think, This one deserves to live! At one point he stood up and strode into the kitchen. He fiddled with something I couldn't see around a corner, then stood tall in the doorway, arms stretched up with hands on the door frame, as if trying to block my view of something, or to show me how much larger he was than me. I never took my eyes off him, not even for a split second. I wanted to subconsciously communicate that nothing escaped me.
Two hours dragged into three. The sun was positioning itself low on the horizon. I figured three hours of my time was convincing enough for him to believe I was interested the collaboration.
"Well, it's been a pleasure discussing this with you," I said as I stood up. "But I have plans to......" (I don't even remember the excuse I used.)
"Right," he said enthusiastically. "Thank you for stopping by. And check your email for the sheet music, then we'll put our heads together about when we can schedule a time to work through it."
"Yes, absolutely," I firmly shook his limp hand and turned on my heel towards the front door. I could see him follow me in the mirror. I walked with calm determination, and the sunset's fresh air slapped me in the face when the door opened to my freedom.
As I rounded the corner of the house down to my car, taking in deep gulps of ammonia-free air, I finally let go, for the first time in three hours, of the blade in my purse, and grabbed my keys. The wind smelled delicious, and whipped my hair around my face, which had completely absorbed the scent of urine.
My uncle happened to call me when I got home, and wondered why my voice was so scratchy. I relayed the whole story to him, every bizarre detail, and he listened in rapt silence, until about halfway through.
"Jessika!" he blurted out. "You could've been killed!"
"It would've been completely acceptable for you to leave after he had you hide your car!!!"
"I guess... I didn't want him to come after me! I had to fool him -- at first I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. But once I was in there..."
I coughed away from the receiver while I tried to find somewhere to sit -- the couch was off-limits because my dress wreaked of piss.
"It's just not worth it, Jess!"
As soon as I got off the phone, I had to shower. When I'd been cleansed of ammonia, at least on the exterior, I discovered an email in my inbox from Dall. Enthusiastic praise (I never sung a note for him), looking to schedule our next meeting, saying he'll email the sheet music as soon as he can get to a scanner (a normal person would've let me leave with that copy)...
I replied bluntly and succinctly: "I will not be returning. The conditions you subjected me to were beyond unprofessional and made me fear for my safety. All the best."
I never heard from him again.
My voice teacher, who'd gotten me the contact, was horrified by my story and alerted the music departments of all the colleges she taught for, to sever all ties with Dall Wilson.