Copyright 2013 Camille Leone This story is a work of fiction.

All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.

Brilliant comic. Flawed woman. One legendary career. Most people recognize the face, if not the name. That apple cheeked, rich brown face with the inviting smile that adorns baking products worldwide. Older movie goers fondly recall her role as the friendly, wise cracking maid in over one hundred films. But to her family and spurned lovers, the tongue of Honi Hawkins was brutally uncompromising and anything but funny, as she strived to become THE QUEEN OF COMEDY. ©

Hollywoodland, 1937

The guard at the front studio gate wouldn’t let her in because he said he didn’t know who she was. She didn’t get upset. She just started dropping some names and did a funny bit from one of her pictures and then he laughed and went, “Oh, oh sure, I know who you are now.” When he got to fumbling all over himself apologizing it gave her a chance to bum a cigarette off him. The trick was to make him laugh. She knew enough not to make white folks mad cuz you don’t get nowhere with ‘em then. He was just being truthful when he said he hadn’t recognized her. It wasn’t that often she got to look like this on a set, all sparkling and dressed in her finest clothes for an audition. Sure enough she’d gone overboard, she could tell by the way people were loo king at her, like she amused them. But she held her head up and concentrated on her lines. She kept on repeating them over and over in her mind until she could feel the sense of the words, until her character’s reason for saying what she did came more from something a real woman might respond to and not just a writer’s pen. At the same time she debated over which tone of voice she’d use, maybe stern and comforting or light and sarcastic at some point in the scene. When she blew a line she cursed at herself, not caring who overheard her, hoping against all odds that her interpretation of the part would be the one they finally settled on. Because this wasn’t just any film, but a film based upon a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Plus MGM had auditioned just about every actress over eighteen and under thirty for the lead role. The finished picture would be a sure Oscar contender come Academy Awards time and each role would be the role of a lifetime. And she’d got a callback, cuz they said she had the look they needed. It had to be close to lunch time on one set, because as they filed out the door she wound up being carried along right with ‘em. The women had on floor length ball gowns, like what they wore in the mid 1800’s but their hair was done up in Shirley Temp le curls since Shirley’s hair was all the rage. Honi could feel her heart rise as big as a golf ball in

her throat. Today was her screen audition. The studio wanted to see how well she came across on film with either Paulette Goddard or Arleen Fontaine. Lord, she’d do anything to get this part. She had to be magic. She was so worked up she got her directions to the soundstage wrong. Some man came over and asked if she was lost and then he showed her where to go. Once she got to where she was going another fella who said he was a stage hand directed her to a dressing room. “Right this way Miss Hawkins.” She liked the sound of that. He’d called her Miss Hawkins. He treated her nice and proper, not gettin’ too familiar with her just cuz she was colored. She needed that, especially since she was so anxious that she almost walked into his back as they went beyond the elaborate dressing rooms until he stopped at what could best be described as a closet. Not only was her dressing area small, but once inside it was almost as dark as she was. Taking a deep breath she removed her gloves and hat, neatly positioning them on the dressing table. Next came the unwinding of her white, doubled fox tails from around her neck and broad shoulders. She let it drape over the beveled mirror, on the side where a row of bulbs had once shone as bright as all the others but were now cold. She snatched a tissue and blotted out the deep red on her mouth to reveal an even deeper natural shade of walnut brown. She had to lose the rouge and the perfectly arched eye brows too. She pulled back the clip on one diamond earring, first the left, then the right and carefully put them in her purse. Off went her two piece suit with the diamond collar designed by Edith Head. Her audition costume lay across a chair in the corner. It was full, with layers and layers of fabric, a high collar, billowy as a cloud at her hips and falling past her ankles. She had a little trouble working the buttons up the back but she didn’t need to call for help. The apron was next and it too was heavy, almost as heavy as her chest felt with anticipation. It was satiny smooth, embroidered with ruffles and realms of gingham fabric just like the dress. The finishing touch was a brightly colored bandanna. Son of a bitch. She’d walked into this joint dripping in diamonds and fur and feeling like a million bucks only to be slowly stripped of any illusion of grandeur. It made her mad. Cuz she deserved better. Her and every other colored actress competing for a part in “Gone With The Wind.” All the studio bragged about was how romantic and popular the novel was and how they felt she had Mammy’s fiery spirit.

“What my lamb gon’ wear today?” she recited, giving a curtsy and a broad Southern drawl. The full impact of what she about to do hit her smack in the face. She was gonna play a slave. And she was supposed to like it. The NAACP would roast her alive if she got this part. Keep thinking Oscar. That’ll shut ‘em up. Cuz if I’m gonna be a Mammy, I’m gonna be the biggest, baddest Mammy y’all ever seen. She laughed, but her laughter wasn’t brittle but high and bubbly. In her mind she was holding a glass made of the finest crystal and filled with champagne. And she was just about to make a toast, a toast to her good fortune as she walked smugly onto a soundstage made up to look like a plantation of the old South. She lost the role of Mammy in “Gone with the Wind.” The part went to Hattie McDaniel. Her consolation was landing another maid role in “Jezebel” starring Bette Davis. Though the movie didn’t have the stature or biting lines of “Gone with the Wind” Bette won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1938.

Las Vegas, Nevada 1966

David Latimore hit the stage as soon as his name was announced. A shock of spotlight caught him leaping into view like the moment a black and white print develops in a darkroom tray. Holding a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he did a side slide toward his mike accompanied by the driving, jazzy beat of percussion. There was rousing applause in front of him, a standing eight count followed by blaring horns behind him, then full orchestration. More blinding light greeted him, illuminating the dark contours of his face. He paused, taking an extended drag from his cigarette, taking a moment to size up the audience. Because comedy was like foreplay. If he took the time to savor the occasion and did it right, the payoff was one big climax. That was just how seductive the power of laughter could be. As a child he’d learned how to amuse and charm others for pay. When he realized what fun it was, what suckers people were for a quick wit disguised as a kid he’d won over the American public. He could thank his aunt for that. He briefly wondered if she was sitting out there in the darkness, watching him with all the others. Bet she was jealous. Too bad. It was his energetic, cute mugging as well as an arsenal of other talents that had put food on their table when her star power faded. Now years later, causing laughter had become his passion, his solace, his bonafide true calling. The metamorphosis he underwent from that amusing little imp to a cool jester brimming with ethnic savoir-faire was a publicist’s dream. Because if there was anything a black man had to have in 1966 it was his ability to be cool, to look cool and to make sure everyone around him did the same. If not, dump the square. Nothing personal but a brother had a reputation to maintain. Cool was the way he exhaled his cigarette on stage, letting the

smoke escape in a slow crawl that engulfed his nocturnal hued profile. He had a look of perpetual sleepiness from eyelids that stood at half-mast and set deep within his oval face. He was the physical embodiment of black cool. When he cracked a smile it was slow, deliberate and defiantly hip. Everything that came out of his mouth was socially aware hip. He was THE comic of the moment, colored or white. Even the few white cats that hung out with him were considered hip because they were smart enough to realize black cool was in. Being sharp, being cool, with it, in the know. Know you got soul. White folks could sense blacks were on the verge of something. Something big was about to go down. His people were on the threshold of realizing what it meant to be called “Black” and not just “Colored” or “Negro.” Black folks had their own slang, their own walk, their own flow. It was time for a revolution, ‘cause they were tired of being second class citizens. Negroes accepted that. Not blacks. Blacks wanted cool black stars. Not those shufflin’ grinnin’ fools like his aunt, Honi Hawkins. Now she went by just Honi, but back in the 1940’s she went by “Honi Chile” Hawkin’s because the phrase “honey chile” was her calling card. It made him cringe just to think about it. The angry souls of black folk were mirrored in his eyes. No sweat. Kill ‘em with your cool. A verbal tongue lashing was a comic’s best defense. Don’t smile, not just yet. But the mixed crowd pleased him so he flashed a killer smile. He wouldn’t have it any other way. He wouldn’t do the show unless they integrated the patrons. Management balked at first and he’d threatened to walk. So they obliged him. Whites in front, blacks to the rear. The only faces visible to him were seated in the first few tables and the far back of the room. The middle section was a checkered blur. The casino’s main stage looked like a cross between the Vatican and a colorblind pimp’s boudoir. Red and gold drapes, red and gold woven braid carpet, a black and gold bar. Egocentric statues of marbled nudes were impaled on enormous pedestals. Chandeliers of pearl shaped imported crystal descended overheard. It was gaudy and extravagant, and just like Vegas. He could smell money. He could see money. And mentality he began counting the money he’d blow if he bombed this night. He’d been told Bill Cosby had just been seated. Bill Cosby. One magic night on “The Tonight Show” and now that brother was a major star and David’s hottest competition. Raunchy, blue comic Red Foxx was a there, he’d wished him luck backstage. Dick Gregory? Yeah . . . he’d come with Nipsey Russell. Jeez. Yes

it was . . . Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton down in front. Sammy Davis Jr. was somewhere in the crowd, and so was Dean Martin. Damn. He’d hit the big time. Plus babes of every shade and bust size were ogling him with looks that said they could be his after the show. They were waiting, watching. Checking him out just like he was checking them out. Their comments filtered up to the stage. They noticed how sharp his ebony tux fit him and his gold jewelry. His hair was hooked up, his attire sharp. Hell, he just looked good. So take a deep breath. They were anxious for him to speak . For him to say something funny. Open up with the one about coloreds and whites on the golf course. Don’t alienate the whites. Then he’d do the joke about his family next. Family jokes were in. Bill Cosby was in. He’d save the social commentary jokes for the middle. After all, remember where you are. You’re in Vegas. These are high rollers. What’s happening down south doesn’t affect them. Not unless we come protestin’ over this way. Yeah. Now do some impressions. Kirk Douglas is down front. Edward G. Robinson too. They’re safe to do. Sure, now do Pearl Bailey. Show George Kirby he’s got competition, a young upstart who knows his stuff. Show ’em The Ed Sullivan Show wasn’t a fluke. Show ‘em. Talk about your wife, don’t be a lame. You know they’ll be waiting, wondering. Wondering if you’ve got the nerve to joke about it. Wondering if the colored tabloids are right. Go for it. But just know when to draw the line. Give ‘em funny , not frustration. Now listen to that laughter! Just listen to it! You’re killing ‘em!

The laughter was deafening. Like music to his ears because no matter how many times a joke is told the response is always different, and unexpected. All a comic could do was pray that it goes over big. Up there on stage it’s just you and your wits. Coax a laugh. Aim for a belly laugh instead of a chuckle. A knee slapping, hee-hawing, doubled over in agony guffaw of laughter. That’s what he was shooting for. He pulled out all the stops, giving them shrewd street wit, subtle rolls of his eyes and sarcastic pauses to accentuate his monologues. A star was being born. Overnight sensation. Who’s kidding who? He was just good at making people laugh, good at being a clown. No, he wasn’t a clown. In his mind being a clown and being funny had distinct differences. Naw, he couldn’t act like a clown. Not tonight. No tap dancing tonight. Tonight he dropped that

part from his show. Tonight he was just a comedian. So contain your anger. They know you’re colored. They know what your people have been through. They’re waiting on you to throw it in their face. They just don’t know how hard you’re gonna let ‘em have it. So let ‘em have it.

And he’d do just that, as soon as his body let him breathe again. Because he couldn’t breathe. All he could do was grab at his chest as it seized up on him, squeezing and tightening on him like a sponge draining of water. Sweat popped out all over his face and body, because he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was blacking out and being smacked back to reality at the same time. “73 year old male, African American…friend says he’s in cardiac distress . . . confirmed angina pectoris. . .”

Who the hell were they talking about? And where the hell was the stage? Oh shit. He was hallucinating. He felt a twinge of remorse along with the biting pain, realizing his trip down memory lane was just that, a jolt back to the 60’s. As he fought through the constricting pressure in his chest, he tried to remember his last sane thoughts. One minute he was being asked for his autograph, the next it felt like someone had dropped an anvil on him. Now drifting in and out of consciousness, he was lifted into an ambulance, with some guy still badgering him for his autograph. The anger in the man’s voice echoed in David’s head. The guy’s pleas turned into a heated argument with the ambulance attendants because they’d told him to fuck off. But why was his mind stuck on his Las Vegas gig? That was over forty years ago. This was…oh shit….he couldn’t remember what year it was…or even what day it was. Somebody was saying his name…was it that same guy? The one wanting his autograph, but didn’t have pen or even paper for him to write it on. He could hear other voices, the building cadence of a crowd gathered around the emergency vehicle. Somebody was trying to stop a man with a cell phone from snapping his picture through the back window. If he could just get rid of the grey haze covering his eyes, fogging up his glasses. At least his hearing was

still working. He could vaguely make out an IV getting set up and information being relayed to the hospital they were taking him to. “Who is this guy?” the medic working on him asked, doing a hellified balancing act of finding and nailing his vein in one try. “I mean, I saw how crazy that homeless dude was acting. Dude wanted to fight me after I told him this man was in no shape to sign anything. You guys see that idiot? All that over an autograph. Is this man must be somebody famous?” “Dunno,” another male, sounding older and in a different part of the ambulance answered. “He looks kinda familiar though” “Latimore. David Latimore,” A female up front hollered. David squeezed his eyes but they wouldn’t obey his command to open. The paramedic was running off what they were giving him but the ringing in his ears drowned out everything. Okay, concentrate. Listen to what’s being said. Morphine drip for the pain and nitroglycerine to jump start his heart. Cool. But even among the chaos and his pain and fear he wondered why they couldn’t recall who he was. Cuz right about now, he needed some strokes. He wanted to hear at least one of them exclaim“It’s a po’ rat that only have one hole to run to when the cat comes ,” a deep alto with a slight southern drawl recited, invading his pity party. Aunt Honi. How’s she get in the ambulance? WTF? “Uh oh…blood pressure just shot up 220 systolic, 186 from 120 diastolic. What’s going on? Come on Mr. Latimore, try to stay with me,” a voice muttered, sounding concerned and baffled. Hearing a dead ringer for his Aunt was what did it. That line was from the 1940’s movie “Saints and Sinners.” God, he hated cable TV sometimes. TMC had been playing her movies all weekend long. Okay…then whoever did the spot on imitation must know him, because he was in the same damn movie. Hell, he even got better reviews cuz Honi didn’t even want to do her part, not after they gave away h er best songs. Hold up…back then he wasn’t going by his real first name. Back then he was “Champion” only they told him to pronounce it “Champeen.” Shit, he didn’t know any better, he just did what he was told. His success in “Saints and Sinners” earned him a continuing serial gig, a job that made him grimace just thinking about it. The medic caught his facial

contortions and wondered aloud to his co-workers if the oxygen machine was working. It’s working, man. It’s working just fine. If I could just open my eyes I’d tell you… “Cuz I’s the Champeen!” He had to say that stupid line on an episodic rip off of “The Little Rascals” called “Howdy, Rowdy.” Rowdy was a curly red headed kid with a million freckles and the leader of their rag tag bunch. “Howdy, Rowdy!” was how they greeted the star, along with a wave of the palm. Yes, it was corny…but it paid the bills. As the colored mascot “Champeen” he tagged along after the little white regulars and usually tried to save the day with some scatterbrained solution. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t a good idea for them to know he’d been in that movie. On screen he had a winsome bucktooth grin, chubby cheeks and expressive, round eyes. But the hairdo they gave him for his part, a bunch of lil’ pickaninny braids like he was a male Medusa or something…now that look wasn’t cool…and it didn’t need to be revisited. “I know who that was! I know her…man that’s Honi Hawkins!” The young medic was guffawing all over him. David felt some spittle hit his cheeks and the oxygen mask and that’s when his eyes flipped open. “Hey, look who’s awake…welcome back,” the guy smiled, but his patient just looked at him with eyes that unmistakably said, What the fuck is wrong with you man…spittin’ on me and shit. “Oh…sorry” the medic apologized, lowering his head after noticing the dots of saliva. He was already going bald and his top lip was pink while the bottom was brown. “David Latimore?” the medic asked, and got a nod in return. When David looked at his own legs they weren’t lying straight and flat on the stretcher, but twisted upright and bent, like he’d been in the process of violently kicking covers off a bed. His pants were high water, his socks were pooled around his ankles and his legs looked ashy and spindly….and…oh god no…had he peed on himself? Yeah…he had. Oh this shit was just embarrassing. A tear escaped from his eye and the medic noticed. His voice was soothing, with an artificial calm to it as he checked his vitals and gave him a smile. “Take it easy David. You’re gonna be just fine.” Fine. David squeezed his eyes shut. Tears were pouring out the sides. He’d be fine? Naw man…cuz the room was getting dark again and their voices were fading away. His eyelids felt so heavy…. He was dying. He knew it.

“Your family’s gonna meet us at the hospital. Good thing your daughter was pulling up when we were loading you in here.” Lyndsey…his daughter Lyndsey was there? Was that why he heard a female screaming? Damn. He thought it was a fan. His ego wished it was a fan, that maybe somebody besides a crack head stopping him outside his apartment building knew who he was. He heard a gruff voice come through the two way radio saying they had a celebrity on board, and for the staff to get ready because the paparazzi were camped out in front of the hospital. The guy driving the ambulance, the one who’d done the spot on imitation of his aunt cursed. The oxygen mask had become a vise, biting into David’s flesh, feeling way too tight. His fingers trailed along his face, trying to move it over. The medic clamped a supportive hand over his. “Hold on David…just hold on… you need this to breathe. We’re almost at the hospital. We’ll be there in a minute” his dark eyes were warm with concern. But there was also an unspoken question reflected in them. David’s own eyes tracked him as he leaned back and attempted to speak softly to the female medic upfront. “So who is this guy?” he whispered, still looking at David. He was alert now, so that made it hard to keep secrets even though exhaustion forced him to shut his eyes. David heard her answer clearly. “Not sure…but I recognized his daughter. She’s up for an Oscar-” “No shit,” the guy answered, looking at his patient hard, like he was seeing him for the first time. “Ever heard of Contessa Earle?” she asked off handedly. “Yeah…who hasn’t?” “Well if Lyndsey Latimore’s his daughter, then that’s his wife…” “His w-wife?” the way he stuttered, in a voice full of wonder and admiration made David think he had a ready made shrine to her with candles and shit. “Oh man…check it…I got…I got Kanye West’s version of “Thrill Ride.” I got it on my iPod right now!. He sampled the part where she does the hook! I love that song! My dad had the original 70’s version…..he’s still got that Contessa Earle album!”

At the mention of his estranged wife’s name, a flash of her 70’s album cover came to David’s mind. Enormous Afro, crocheted, bosom revealing halter top, elephant bell bottoms, platform shoes, glossy red lips puckered to blow a kiss, ammunition clip over one shoulder while holding a machine gun in one hand and a machete in the other. His eyes slowly opened. Now the medic was animated, giving him fawning looks then shyly glancing away. David tried to smile even though the morphine was finally kicking in. At least his chest was letting him breathe. Maybe one of ‘em would ask for his autograph now that he was back among the living. He waited for them to finally realize who he was. They were excitedly talking about his aunt, his daughter…even his wife. But no mention of him. Still…he waited. The driver started up again with an imitation of his aunt. The female was laughing so hard her voice raised several octaves, giving off a girlish, looping giggle. Had to be the neck roll. Yep, the driver must have been doing a hellafied imitation of Aunt Honi’s neck roll action. The female medic asked him to do it again, and told the young medic to watch. All three of them were laughing. Well…at least he couldn’t add in the circle snap, though Aunt Honi swore she’d originated that move too. Okay, so they didn’t recognize him. But this whole thing was so fuckin’ surreal, if he survived he’d have to use it in his act. The ambulance did a careening turn, then a slight skid as if trying to avoid somebody, slammed to a lurch, slowly pulled forward, and stopped. Lights flooded the back windows and he heard more voices, agitated and fighting for position. The medic started to open the doors then got scared and shouted, “Holy shit!! Look at all the TV cameras!” Yeah. You damn straight. Just look at ‘em. David’s hands flew up to his face, remembering he was wearing glasses. He almost slapped himself silly trying to remove them and it startled the medic. The guy must have realized what he was trying to do, because he just about pried them out of his hands, explaining he didn’t want them to get lost so he’d give them to his family. David nodded in gratitude, figuring his glasses would be up on eBay as soon as the medic’s shift was over. It didn’t matter, cuz he wasn’t taking a picture wearing those things. Glasses made him look way, way too old. Glasses meant the cover of the Star tabloid instead of People Mag. Now they’d see. Now they’d be sorry for forgetting who he was. Just as the back doors flew open, the

crush of media gave a collective shriek, and in a great undulating wave turned away from him, rocking the ambulance in the process. Damn it all to hell! By the way they were screaming, either his aunt or his wife had just arrived.

Chapter Two

Like a great lumbering sea turtle, Harriet “Honi” Hawkins needed assistance getting out of her limo. She was ever so slowly led out of the back seat, pulling her full length mink coat tighter with both hands and touching one toe to the ground as if she were testing the temperature of water in a tub. At her age the fear of slipping was more important than the horror of not taking a good photo. By the time she got balanced on two feet the paparazzi had gathered and swarmed over her, with some junior reporter wielding a mike like a sword, demanding to know if her mink was real. She proudly snapped, “Yeah” as he loudly decried her use of animal fur. Somebody else in the throng of photogs said to leave her alone, that she was old and she probably didn’t know any better. It was the “old” part that got to her, so she told all of them to kiss her black ass. The laughter and surprise at her feistiness had reporters looking at their camera operators in the hopes they’d captured the moment. The fact that she’d come out in public after years of being a recluse made the crowd part into a protective gauntlet, allowing her to walk through undisturbed. She made certain to stretch her eyes bigger and to flash a wide smile, something the studios had taught her long ago. Someone shouted at her, saying she was still beautiful, that she still looked good. That comment made her stumble, but her aide had a secure hold of her arm. Were they crazy? Nobody ever told her that. Not when she was in school, not as a singer, not as a comedian . . . not even when she was doin’ movies. They said somebody as dark as her and as big as she was couldn’t be attractive. Honi’s eyes began to water as she searched the crowd. There wasn’t an unfriendly face in the bunch. The way the reporters and hospital staff were gawking at her, it was a wonder no one was throwing rose petals at her feet. She could get used to this, the stares, the admiration. Thank God she’d lived long enough to finally appreciate it.

Honi, 1926

The projector was loud but mechanically fit. The silent film popped and jerked in spots, yet even without sound they could tell the heroine was beautiful and helpless. She was petite and white as snow, in stark contrast to the wicked men in blackface. The film was “Birth of a Nation” and Miss Amanda Windermere’s drawing room had become her own private movie theater. Long, tall and strangely unaffected to have her colored help in the midst of close friends, Amanda could have been one of those leggy models in a Pierce Arrow car ad. Some nights she’d gather all of them together to watch “The Sheik” and they’d squeal over that tall, dark and handsome Rudolph Valentino. That was Miss Amanda’s favorite moving picture. She swore there was no finer looking man than Valentino. Amanda even asked her new maid Harriet if she favored Valentino, and the girl told one and all that she did. Cleaning a rich woman’s home was Harriet Hawkins’ occupation. As she did her housework she got to pretend all them fancy things in Miss Amanda’s bedroom was really her things, choosing from among the dozens of crystal bottles filled with perfume, giggling while smelling the various elixirs on the dresser top and dabbing the ones she liked best behind her ears. She was especially critical of her wide landscape of a face in the cherry wood vanity, wondering why her eyes were spaced so far from her nose and if lipstick could make her top and bottom lip uniform in color. So she’d sneak a fingertip into one of Miss Amanda’s lip pots of deep scarlet until she was satisfied with the result. Each daily trip to her employer’s bedroom made her experiment more. Today she’d found rouge could give her coffee bean complexion a rosy glow. She next agonized over her lack of hair and why there was no sheen to what little she had. As the child in her gave way she took a pillow case and pulled it over the back of her head, joyfully pretending her hair was as long and bouncy as any white girl’s. She liked what she saw of herself in the mirror. For a few precious moments she was transformed into the siren

she hoped to become. But the taunts of her former classmates would always return to pull her spirits down. Solemnly she’d remove her face paint, reluctantly put ting each cherished item back in its proper place and she’d revert back to hers. The linen was fresh and white on the bed, the heavy drapes drawn back to let in the reality of a warm mid—day sun, while Harriet was dejected, convinced there would be no man who’d find her becoming enough to want to share his bed in marriage. Since her future as a domestic looked promising there was no need for more schooling. School was for saps, that’s why she’d dropped out. Big enough in size to compete with the older women who found domestic work, she was worked like a mule. But size alone didn’t mean she was quick. Whites and coloreds called her stupid and lazy when she didn’t complete her tasks fast enough. She’d be chugging a basket full of laundry to iron as if she really planned on doing something with it but she was lousy at ironing. So she was put on her knees, scrubbing woodwork and hardwood floors that had to be clean enough for toddlers to drool on. In her short career as a domestic, she’d been fired twice as soon as she was hired, the excuse given most was that she acted too “uppity.” A smile on her face wasn’t something that could make a cold heart mild. To survive, she tried to learn how to put a smile on other people’s faces. That way they wouldn’t be so hostile towards her. That started her to reading white folks expressions, figuring out when her employers were having a bad day or a good one. She studied white folks, what made ‘em happy, what made ‘em laugh. Once she had ‘em laughin’ at her, then how quickly she did her cleaning was secondary. Her countenance must have been appealing to Miss Amanda, cuz she had Miss Amanda thinking she was a big, sweet girl. Now Miss Amanda, she was just an apparition haunting her own mansion. Everyday around noon she’d take a little white pill with just a touch of vermouth, pills she carried in a tiny silver snuff box with raised carvings in her pocket. She claimed she took those pills for her migraines, but both pills and drink would have her walking around her home like a zombie, her pupils so enlarged it was hard to tell what the real color of her eyes were. Either t hat or she’d be knocked out for the rest of the day, mouth all open and just snoring away on her antique French loveseat. Amanda was the kind of lady who left her valuables lying about but insisted the help save old tea bags. Her garden was as lush with green foliage as the

Amazon Rain Forest, full of flowers with exotic names and creeping vines that the help couldn’t begin to pronounce. The house had an old world charm about it, completely brick, cozy and warm in the winter but hot and humid during the summer months. When Miss Amanda was awake, she’d want to be shown how to do the latest dances like the “Charleston” and the “Black Bottom.” Miss Amanda said Harriet had a flair for dancing. Whenever Amanda used such a trendy word Harriet would memorize it to use around all the other help. That started them calling her “Miss High and Mighty” behind her back. They’d say things like “Miss High and Mighty don’t take orders from no one but Miss Amanda.” The other help shunned her, they were all older and none too friendly. But she wasn’t lonely cuz Miss Amanda spent time with her. Miss Amanda was a talker. She’d get a wistful look in her eyes and dwell on things that were way before Harriet’s time. She supposed Miss Amanda and her late father were real close from the many pictures showing them together. A stern faced little girl with lips turned downward, Amanda’s lithographs always showed her in the company of her equally stern looking father. Amanda did have silly rich friends who talked about silly things like how wonderful being poor and having a bunch of kids must be. They even talked about how happy and loose colored folks seemed all the time but they never bothered to ask none of them if it was true. They were cute girls who all had cute names for each other. Their group consisted of Mitzi, a bankers daughter, there was pert little Dottie, now her daddy was a wealthy industrialist, Suki, whose daddy owned several patents he’d bought from Thomas Edison and Miss Amanda, or “Mandy” as she liked to be called by tho se chummy with her. Mandy was the leader. Seems they’d been sorority sisters in college, all daughters of wealth and privilege looking for silly ways to spend their fortunes. That’s why Miss Arnanda invited them Gypsies over that time and they went and trashed her house. Then them girls moved on to all things Japanese and dressed up as geisha girls. Winter brought frost to the stained glass windows in Miss Amanda’s parlor. Persian rugs warmed the solid oak floors, and each of Miss Amanda’s friends would g reet her with a smile and a quick peck on the cheek when they’d come to visit. Color would be added to their prim faces when Harriet showed them how to roll their backsides doing

the “Black Bottom.” The other colored help would look on disapprovingly, but Harriet kept on showing out, especially after Miss Amanda would brag on her dancing. Miss Amanda said she taught her how to dance just like a colored gal. In truth it was a sight to see Miss Amanda bending over real unlady like and shaking a tail feather. Music came out of a thing that looked like a cross between a tuba and a sewing machine. A Gramophone or Victrola as some called it, played high fidelity records. The fact that someone like Miss Amanda could love her a black gal singing the blues had all the colored staff cracking up. But what a voice that Ma Rainey had!. Ma Rainey sung like she was so tired, like she had the troubles of the world on her shoulders. Miss Amanda even said when she listened to Ma Rainey she could feel herself turning colored. After watching “The Sheik” so much Miss Dottie went looking for her own personal Valentino. She found him too, in the form of a young flamingo dancer. He called himself the “Great Ricardo” and he was a pretty man with raven dark hair and eyes. He wore high heeled boots and white ruffled shirts just like Rudy Valentino. First Miss Dottie was smitten with him, then he strayed with Miss Mitzi, Miss Mitzi fell out with Miss Dottie over him and well, soon he’d run through all them girls. It didn’t take long befo re Miss Amanda had him over to her house and with her being richer than all the others it was no wonder he stayed put. Claimed he was teaching her flamingo dancing. He was teaching Miss Amanda more than just dancing. When Senor big heels came a courtin’ all things colored were forgotten. He could hardly speak English but Harriet caught him sneaking around listening to other folks conversations. The kitchen help warned her to stay out of it. “That’s white folks business” they told her. But somebody had to pr otect Miss Amanda from that man. While she dusted the study and Amanda’s dead father’s oil portrait she thought she could feel Mr. Windermere staring down at her like an owl on its perch, the grey at his temples curled to look like horns. She had to protect Miss Amanda. So as she was cleaned “El Gaucho’s” stuff she got to snooping, messing in his things. She’d finger his shirts and smell the cologne Miss Arnanda had bought for him. She found herself thinking about his strong shoulders and sly smile, and sometimes she’d imagine he danced for her alone. Having no one to talk to, no one to confide in she was definitely experiencing conflicting feelings for the man. At least he didn’t treat her as if she were just a part of the mansion’s decor. He’d say hello th e best he could in

broken English, and when he wanted something from her he’d bow and smile and point like he was doing some kinda sign language. She could tell he went out of his way to be friendly to her, and if she didn’t quite know why, she really did appreciate the attention. He wasn’t half bad, even if he was fornicatin’ with her boss. Harriet began to like cleaning his room better than doing Miss Amanda’s. Humming to herself and smoothing out the quilt on the bed “Ricardo” would t iptoe back to in the mornings, she had a habit of picking her favorite shirt from those he’d worn the night before and do a tango around the room, twirling so fast she’d spin herself dizzy. She’d envelope herself in that shirt, any shirt that smelled like him. On one such occasion she was so deep into dancing and dreamin’ that she didn’t realized she wasn’t alone. Ricardo was standing in the doorway, watching her performance with an amused grin. She immediately shrunk her shoulders and prepared to beg for forgiveness, to fall back on her sweet but slow colored gal routine. She tried to bow and scamper past him all while mumbling how sorry she was. She flinched when she felt his hand on her shoulder, expecting a blow of some kind and the immediate end of her employment. Instead she was cradled by the back of the head, whipped around and kissed full on the mouth. Her eyes widened in shock, but she moved into action when she realized “El Gaucho” was trying to slide his tongue between her lips. With a Herculean shove that caught him by surprise, they both wound up on the floor. She quickly struggled to get to her feet, rasping and heaving, trying to keep an eye on where he was and attempting to speak at the same time. “Mister, what’d you do that for?” she coughed. Ricardo gave her another sexy grin in response, his black hair tousled from the fall. He rubbed his sore shoulder and started towards her. She put up her fists to show him she meant to fight him like she was Jack Johnson. “I think you broke my arm,” he told her, grimacing in pain. “Yep, I think you broke my arm.” “Serves you right if I did break it,” she spat back at him. “And here I’m thinking you’re as sweet as Mandy says you are. Virgins like you are supposed to be sweet and willing,” he whined. She drew back a fist and narrowed her eyes, inching him backwards toward the door. “I’ll go straight to Miss Amanda,” she warned.

“What are you saving it for? Some shoe shine boy?” Even in his arrogance he was attractive. “You really think you’ll be doing the lady a great service don’t you? I’m the one you’d be helping. Amanda’s a bore. The money’s good, but she’s a bore. You know, I don’t understand you. I should think with the way they treat your kind you’d want to stick it to these snobby tarts like I do. We could have fun. I could diddle you too, if you weren’t so high minded.” There was something about his grand talking didn’t sound right to her. “Thought you couldn’t speak so good. How come you don’t sound Spanish no more?” she asked. He put his finger to his lips to silence her. “Shhh. It’ll be our little secret. Just like this will.” He started towards her again. She threw a wild punch and when he ducked out the way she barreled straight for the door. His laughter echoed down the hall after her, stinging her ears, wounding her pride. Now he’d gone and done it. Her mission was clear. The next time she cleaned his room she was hell bent on finding something, anything. She turned that room inside out. It took hours. Days. But finally, stuffed well into his underwear drawer, away from prying eyes she found what she needed. She discovered the olive oil he used to tan his skin in the sun. There was the proof hidden away, along with ripped pages of funny worded books that she was told later on helped teach him what little Spanish he knew. The evidence to show he was an imposter. She took her findings to Miss Amanda, gladly reporting that her Spanish dancer wasn’t Spanish after all. In her mind, Harriet figured she was doing everyone a favor. Miss Amanda needed a good man, not a cad. And that’s what she told her. It was Miss Amanda’s duty to kick that “Ricardo” or whatever his real name was, out. But she never expected Miss Amanda for all her liberal talk, to threaten to have that young man put in jail. That’ s cuz he was found to be Irish. And that’s when the realization hit her that some white folks were even prejudiced against other white folks. Miss Amanda told him she was gonna have him charged with rape, and her girlfriends would follow suit. He’d get one count for each of them gals he’d spoi led. Miss Amanda was wonderful and strong in her anger. Wasn’t until he threatened to go to the newspapers with all the juicy, dirty details that Miss Amanda had to back down. The

scandal alone would have ruined all them sorority sisters. Wasn’t nothin’ left but one thing to do. “Harriet, my sweet, sweet Harriet. What is there left to say? Well, don’t have a pity party for me. These things do happen.” Miss Amanda sounded determined to put it behind her, but her voice was breaking like she wanted to cry. Harriet brought Miss Amanda’s tea and pills like she did every d ay, but instead of being asked to sit down and spill the latest gossip, Miss Amanda turned her head away, looking sad faced. Maybe Miss Amanda really did love that man. Because she was so embarrassed by the whole thing, there was only had one way to handle this. Miss Amanda fired her on the spot.

Skinny and butter yellow, the cook wearily straightened her back and closed Harriet’s cloth suitcase. “You shoulda just left well enuff alone. All Miss Amanda cared about was having a man. That’s all she ever care d about. Told you it was white folks business.” Then the cook reminded her, “If you gonna work for white folks you got to be able to keep they secrets. It weren’t like Miss Dottie or Miss Suki tellin’ Miss Amanda ‘bout her man. If it were, she coulda took it better. You’s a colored girl. You can’t throw nothin’ in their face. You best remember that next time child. Know your place. You hear me?” The look she gave Harriet was mean and maternal at the same time. Here she was, talking more to her in these last few minutes than all the while the girl had worked there. But she wasn’t finished bad mouthing Miss Amanda. “Hmmp! She kept talkin’ all that mess about being sweet. It wasn’t sweetness that got you fired. It was just plain old jealousy. We all seen how that man weren’t nothin’ but a rooster in the hen house. I was hoping he was colored so they’d really faint. Bet he got some Negro in him somewhere,” cook mumbled. “I got a sister across town. There’s lotsa work ‘round here in St. Louie. Make sure you look her up. Her name’s Fayetta. She’s good people.” The older woman’s anger had left her and now she was being philosophical. “Listen here. You’re big and you’re scary looking. Use that child. Then men nor women will take advantage of you.”

Honi, 1930
In a field just outside of town with cornstalks so green and high it was almost impossible to see Ma Rainey’s tent, the blues lovin’ faithful made their way up towards the music. They were bunched so close together it was hard not to inhale the sulfur hair pomade on the next one’s scalp. A few older women donned colorful wrapped scarves to hide their uncombed heads, while the younger girls wore thick braids woven close to the scalp, tapering off into ends as thin as the thirsty root hairs of a plant. Still others wore spongy skull caps of hot combed hair. The single women talked about men, making time payments on furniture and trash about the younger girls. Only the good looking and bourgeoisie rode on the horse drawn hay wagon. Many a fella and his gal were dressed in their Sunday go to church meeting clothes. As they hiked the dirt path towards the melodic noise, swallow tailed top coats and fancy store bought dresses of the city merged with the faded dungarees of simple country folk. A cow lazily watched all the activity and a few chickens scurried alongside the revilers. Bags of roasted peanuts were being sold for a nickel and carelessly scattered on the ground. Harriet glanced down to see hundreds of the empty waffled shells leading straight to the tent opening. As an eager young gent drew back the flap, the first thing greeting her was a blind man hammering away at a box piano. Rhythm was supplied by a sweaty Goliath frantically scratching on a washboard, and there was a blank eyed soldier playing an old brass horn, dented and scuffed but the only thing he had left from World War I. He’d stop for a spell to catch his breath, then he’d pucker up his withered lips and blow. Every song he played sounded like reverie, so folks began hollering him down. One man even tried jerking that horn from his hands, but he refused to stop. Mercifully, a group of men got together and dragged him off, trampling that tuneless horn in the chaos. The crowd heartily cheered at that. Conversation and laughter rambled loud and robust, each motor mouth trying to out shout the other. She couldn’t hear the music for all the talking. There was a couple on the dirt dance floor, a gangly man with crazy legs working, his partner was full hipped, scantily dressed and lovin’ the attention she was

getting. Kerosene lamps hanging inside the carnival sized tent cast a warm yellow glow over the burlap surface. Harriet was mesmerized by the shadows produced by the light, as well as the nauseating, sweet odor of boiled sugar cane emitting from a nearby still. Sharecroppers in soiled overalls handed over loose change to painted up, hard lookin’ women. Shifty eyed Romeo’s searched for only those fair of face. She gawked at men pullin’ knives on each other and fast women struttin’ about showing their garters and underwear, lousy comics, field hands, house servants in from the city like she was and con men galore. There were old men with straw hats perched at an angle on their heads, smoking stogies and wearing tight vests that had golden watches dangling from the pockets. Young gals passed by her, gals smelling like cooking vanilla or fresh cut flowers. They bumped into her without apologies cuz she didn’t look worth the words. Women wore their hair bobbed, parted on the side and waved close to their heads. Smart gents wore flannel lounging suits with wide lapels, monogrammed and cut like pajamas. Since the look for men was hair slicked back with tonic, to keep in style or be “smart” colored men and women practically burned theirs off with lye for a straight flat look. The word was “smart” as in “that’s a smart little dress” or a smart hat, or smart haircut. But wasn’t nothing smart about the washer woman dress she was wearing or how it bore the strong smell of laundry starch. Nobody questioned her age because a plain faced female don’t get looked at anyway. Or maybe it was because she was giggling to herself at the excitement of it all and sometimes staring in open mouthed wonder. She sat on a wooden crate, her legs just a twitching and dancing on their own cuz no man had asked her to. Whatever the reason she was left by herself, with no smooth talking rogue pleading and pulling her towards the secluded darkness of the cornfield. In her mind she fantasized being all spiffed up in one of Miss Amanda’s long flowing satin gowns. A handsome gent asked her to dance, so she raised her dress up off the floor and proceeded to show them what her big legs could do. Then she did a seductive stomach roll to the delight of the other men. Her hair, oh her hair was waved and greased over to one side of her face. And the men were so accommodating; they just kept on sending drinks over to her. The tent wasn’t lying on the trampled stalks of a cornfield. She was sitting in a prime seat at a posh club, right near the stage watching

Ma Rainey. This was also Ma Rainey’s last night, and the last chance for a star struck Harriet to eavesdrop on the woman. So tonight, just in night’s past Harriet crawled on her belly and peeked under Ma’s tent, watching her idol perfume her body and paint her face. Flat on her stomach, she slowed her breath as she held up the bottom of that weighty tarp and took in the sights and sounds of Ma’s private life. Pa Rainey was busy counting money. Ma was in a gold and black silk robe that was badly frayed at the bottom. Ma looked tired and angry, mad cuz her money wasn’t right and mad cuz she hated packing. Ma took off a rhinestone headband shaped like a queen’s tiara, threw her meaty leg up on Pa’s thigh and opened her robe. She reached in and pulled down a silver threaded garter. The girl turned her head away at Ma exposing herself like that and her movement was what caught Ma’s eye in the mirror. Acting like she wasn’t the least bit concerned, Ma opened her jewelry case real wide, wide enough for whoever was spying on her to see all she possessed. Harriet was so busy gawking at Ma’s expensive gewgaws and baubles she didn’t realize she’d been found out. Ma grabbed her up in th e collar like a badger dragging prey to its den. The girl couldn’t get that fat little woman to turn her loose, no matter how hard she fought and hollered. Pa Rainey never even looked up during the disturbance. He just kept counting dollars and coins. Ma was snapping at her, the gold fillings of her teeth moving fast and furious, the deep laugh lines embedded on each side of her full face making her seem even more sinister. But it was Ma’s voice that made her bigger than what she was, cuz face to face she was a mighty short woman. “What you doin’ gal, and don’t be lying cuz if God don’t strike ya down I sho’ will.” Ma shook her good and hard, taking note that although the girl’s clothes were nothing but rags, at least they were clean. “What you trying to do , steal something? Gal, I’ll kill you dead and be gone before the coppers get here.” “Miz-” the girl whispered, finally finding her voice. “Speak up, you thievin’ little heffa-” Ma commanded. “Miz Rainey, I just wanna tell you. I just wanna say thank you,” the child said, determined not to think, because if she did then she’d realize she was talking to a blues legend in the flesh. “Miz Rainey, I just wanted to say thank you. See, I needed to thank you c-cuz all the time in school, kids would be callin’ me names. Real bad names. I left

school cuz of it. But after hearing you…now after seeing you, most times I can pretend that I’m you. Cuz you and me ain’t that much different. We both look like we live the blues.” Ma Rainey was a woman who usually dished out tenderness with a teaspoon, but even she could tell this girl could use some kind words. Some kids, when they get caught with a hand in the cookie jar, well they don’t think nothin’ of lying their way out of a situation. But when Harriet got to blubbering about how bad other kids treated her then Ma didn’t need to hear no further. She knew. She just knew. Women was supposed to be soft and round, instead the Lord made the two of them with woolly hair, muscles where curves shoulda been and broad shoulders that looked better on a man. So Ma stopped her ranting and commanded the big young thang to stay put. Then she did a slow hip sway over to a bulging wardrobe closet where her jewelry box sat. She rummaged through all her precious gems until she found just what she was looking for. Like scraps being slung at a dog, she hurled a necklace of double pearl strands at her. As the girl lovingly caressed the expensive ornament, Ma felt uneasy watching such a tender moment between the child and her gift. So just as quickly Ma ’s corrosive personality returned. “Them pearls, they real, not dipped. Wear ‘em or pawn ‘em, it don’t make me no never mind. But you listen to me good gal, the whole of Missouri ain’t big enuff for no two Ma Rainey’s. Now you git outta here and go make a name for yo self somewheres else…” Just in case someone was outside listening, Ma threw open her tent, announcing in a loud voice, “Git! You heard me you thievin’ heffa! Git now...and don’t you come back or I’ll beat the black off ya!” Wide eyed from shock, Harriet stumbled over her own feet trying to comply with Ma’s bidding, but with a smile of pure delight plastered on her face as if she was a beauty queen newly crowned. Pa Rainey had stopped counting, his brow still furrowed. “You was kinda rough on that young gal” was his only comment. “Did I tell yo ass to stop countin’ my dough?” Ma snarled back at him. “She got a tough hide. With a face like that, she better not be sensitive, cuz the world sho won’t mince no words about her looks, or her color.”

Chapter Three

At first glance the man behind the desk looked white. Paul Martin was a sturdy, bow legged fellow originally from the West Indies. With a craggy face that looked as if he were continually blushing red, Paul was the first colored man she’d ever met that owned anything, much less a burlesque theater. With a friendly wave of his diamond cuff linked arm, Paul ushered Harriet into his tiny office. Fayetta was always sending somebody his way. This time it was a girl whose face reminded him of a sea lion, with her bulging, wide spaced eyes and deep coloring. “Fayetta tells me you got potential. What’s your talent gal?” he inquired, just being courteous and not really caring. “I can sing, and tell jokes a little,” she stuttered. Paul nodded for her to show him, so she closed her eyes to sing. Paul was only half listening. He was too busy watching the steady rise and fall of her full bosom. She was wearing a blue and white pinafore dress that had a bow tied just below her breasts. The seams strained and the fabric rippled against her cleavage. Yet she still wore it proudly, along with the pearl necklace Ma Rainey had given, now hanging around her neck. Fayetta had even hot combed her hair and put rouge on her cheeks to make her look older. Even so, Paul Martin chewed on the end of his cigar in a manner he always did when he was bored. Over the years the center of his mouth had turned darker than his lips because of it. His mind made up, he raised his hand to stop her in mid-song. “I don’t need no singers. This ain’t the place for singers. But you got talent. Just don’t know what kind yet. Let’s see what kinda talent you hidin’ under them clothes” She gulped, thinking she hadn’t heard him right. “I beg your pardon?” “Do what I tell ya now. I’m a busy man. I ain’t got all day to be foolin’ wit cha. Take off your clothes. Lemme see all of what ya got.” He said it with such authority that she took it to mean something every perspective employee went through. He had such a calm, don’t nothing you got surprise me look on his face that she felt she had no other

choice but to comply with his instructions. She smiled bravely, relieved to get out of that tight dress. He nodded for her to go on. He never rose from the desk, just looked her over with that same impassive gaze in his eyes. She was all the way down to her bloomers and that iron clad bra she had to wear to keep her titties from jiggling when she finally got up enough nerve to stare at him straight on. He kept wetting his lips as if he was trying to hold something back, like he wanted to tell her something but he couldn’t bring himself to. By staring at him she could tell he was fighting to keep that expression on his face. “Uh how, how old did you say you was?” he wheezed, as if talking had become too strenuous for him. “Eighteen,” she lied, then seeing his brow wrinkle in disbelief she felt compelled to tailor her lie. “I mean sixteen, going on seventeen.” His reply came out heavy, as if he were thinking out loud. “You got the body of a fully grown woman. Can’t nobody blame me. How was I supposed to know? I asked, you said eighteen. That’s what you said, ain’t it?” She nodded, thinking he was talking to her. Her eyes followed him as he got up from the desk, walked over to the door and locked it. Then he stood in front of her, debating his next move. “I’m a fair man. I’ll treat you right. Show you the ropes. But I have to be honest wit cha. You don’t look like much. So you can’t be a singer. But I can put you with a couple of my comedians. They could use a gal with your physical attributes, if you know what I mean.” She didn’t answer. She just continued to stare at him. He had an expression on his face she’d seen only once before, and that time it had cost her a job. It had never occurred to her that she could have something a man would want. But he was old and puny. She’d admired him at first, because he was dressed so fine and he was light. But up close she noticed the silver hair growing out of his ears and protruding from his nose. She was cold from having hardly any clothes on but she wasn’t the one shivering. He was. He took both his hands and tried to rub her shoulders, his eyes fixated on her chest. She might a been only fourteen, but she knew she didn’t want no part of him. “Don’t be touchin’ all on me,” she warned. “You old enuff to be my daddy and then some. If you done with me then I got to go. I got to babysit Fayetta’s kids.”

Her aggression was a surprise. Now he was the one stumbling over his words. “Not so fast sweet pea. I think we can find something for you here. You can start tonight darling. Didn’t I tell you that?” he whined, sounding like a child needing candy in the worst way. “Fine. Now git on back from me so’s I can put my dress back on. Seems you’ve had enough excitement for one day grandpa,” she cracked. That brashness was Harriet channeling how Ma Rainey would a handled this moment, tough talking her way out of a situation. But it worked. Because he backed off.

That impulsive belligerence would serve her well as the theater soon became her refuge, a way of going back in time whenever she had the privilege to perform live. One night Paul would have all the women dressed as French courtesans, wearing corsets so tight their breasts would swell and spill from the top like a horn of plenty. Other nights she would be cast as a slave maiden from long ago Egypt, complete with sandals, gold eye shadow and braided wig or perhaps a harem dancer complete with veil and navel revealing silk pants. She loved the theater because it allowed her to make believe. The costumes, the role-playing no matter how vulgar were still played for laughs. But even here her looks was a sore point. There was a skit where one of the comedians, dressed as a World War I soldier in khaki’s and knee boots would dive into a foxhole and pull one of the nubile, attractive strippers in with him. Bombs and gunfire surrounded them. Then, after all the fighting subsided there would be Harriet in the place of the other stripper, causing the comic to make the observation, “Damn. That mustard gas sho is powerful!” above the chuckles of the sparse audience. Still, there was no other place in the world where she could feel so alone at times and at other times so full. There were the regulars, washed up comics and strippers who looked as if they would be more at home rocking grandchildren on their laps in front of a cozy fire. And the band never could stay in tune or play in time together, maybe cuz they had the best view of anybody in the house whenever the strippers danced. Even though Paul Martin owned the theater he still had to give way when a white performed or whites attended the shows. It was an elephant graveyard, a place as gray and black and miserable as a closed train depot because it was the end of the line, the final stop on that roller coaster

called show business. Her sucker punch came in handy whenever customers groped too far up her skimpy attire or other performers got too familiar backstage. Male performers liked to gang up on a female and molest them behind the curtains just before a skit. But she made many a man think twice, since she was just as rough in strength as they wuz. So she became a protector, defending the girls who couldn’t fend for themselves or the lush on the wagon Paul seemed to have a soft spot for. And that’s what all the whispers were about lately, concerning a returning comic by the name of Baltimore Brown. Baltimore Monroe Brown and Paul went way back. Baltimore had just got released from the hospital after drying out. He didn’t look like much when she first saw him. Just a skinny black man already goin’ bald. Baltimore smiled all the time, using one side of his mouth cuz a stroke had left him that way. She thought he had a nice smile. He loved to lean back and yell “Say y’all! Baltimore is on the floor!” whenever he greeted people. But when he first spoke to her it was altogether different. He’d greeted her with “How you doin’ pretty. Say honey, I’m a call you honey from now on. You my honey ain’t cha?.” She didn’t say nothin’ because she didn’t think he was talking to her. “Hey, young big mama, you lookin’ evil as a boll weevil. Yeah brown sugar I’m talkin’ to you. You wanna be my honey?. I’ll be yo bee baby. Or what you want. . . you wanna be the dog and I’ll be the tree, and then you can pee on me.” “Yes suh,” she’d answered, adjusting the lampshade Paul recommended she wear to cover her face. “Do I look like yo daddy?” he’d hollered, catching her by surprise. She’d trembled, forced to admit he did. Baltimore was nothing but a sweet talker, telling her, “Now listen here brown sugar, I know I look old but damn, I hope I don’t look that old. I’m still in my thirties. Still got the wood to make it good.” With that he’d given her hand a gentle squeeze as they waited on the curtain to slowly rise. And slowly it did. It was so slow that she had enough time to adjust her eyes to the dim stage lights and the dampness of the theater. The lampshade was crooked on her head as it swung over one eye, but with her other eye she looked towards the balcony and the empty seats in the back of the theater. Then there was the matter of the nameless, salty odor coming from the front of the stage. That’s where a group of hunched shadows with red rimmed eyes sat. Baltimore was supposed to pinch her in

the rear once or twice and she was supposed to squeal in delight, just to get the show rollin’. Instead he tweaked the nipple of her breast. He started doing a sloppy soft shoe routine, grinning like he owned the world. When he danced back around she said “You ain’t no Bojangles” under her breath, but just loud enough for him to hear it. He just laughed and smacked hard on her bottom, causing her to leap out of place. “Watch yo hands mista” she warned him as he came back her way again. “I loves you too darlin” he kidded, giving her that twisted, half smile. He looked like a dangling puppet, arms and legs going every which way, white spats and gloves meeting in mid air as he did a coon dance, a dance all coloreds did as they clowned around trying to make people laugh by them acting so foolish. “You’s a fool,” she giggled when he proceeded to chase her around the stage, trying to get her to do that silly dance. It was that moment which would be forever etched in her mind, him laughing and performing, seemingly oblivious to the catcalls and lewd remarks, the boos at his jokes, the yells calling for the strippers to hurry up and come on. It was the night she fell in love with a sensitive comic three times her age, and not long for this world.

Love for a young girl is full of hope, full of fire, and able to forgive a multitude of sins. If his breath always smelled like tobacco that’s cuz he smoked like a chimney stack. If he smelled like whiskey even when he wasn’t drinking it was because liquor was his life’s blood, vital for his survival. They called him a has -been at the theater. She thought he was a star. When they walked down the street together he was tall and his back was as straight as an arrow, so full of pride to be adored by this young girl. At night he would bend himself into less than what he was to make an audience laugh. Whenever he was too drunk she’d say his lines for him. They got along so well people started thinking they were a team. They’d even begun calling them “Baltimore and his Honey.” And Baltimore knew an awful lot of people, influential people in the recording business. That lead to them going into a small studio to do recordings of their most popular routines, like “Ladies, Keep Your Dog on a Short Leash,” “Married Men and Loose Women”, “Let’s Make Us Legal” and their most requested, “Love Ain’t Nothing

But A Four Letter Word.” Their label mates on Okeh Records included Butterbeans and Susie, another male female colored duo they’d worked with on numerous shows. Everything was just grand. She was doing what she loved and she had the man that she adored, though it wasn’t perfect. There were times he’d come home so drunk that she’d find him face down in the community outhouse, covered in his o wn vomit, in a rat infested boarding house they called home. She’d be the one to fish him out and clean him up before the landlord or the other renters said anything. Then there were times mean looking men came callin’ for him cuz he owed them money and she’d be the one to have to pay it in some fashion or another. Only thing about the weakest of men. They still figured being a man meant knocking a woman around. The first time Baltimore hit her it was over money. He claimed she stole it, she told him he’d been too drunk to recall where he’d spent it, that’s when he punched her in the face. The blow itself didn’t hurt, not as much as the idea that he thought he had the right to hit her. That’s why she didn’t have the anger to hit him back. Cuz she was so hurt behind it all. She tried leaving him, but he’d get on his knees and beg her to stay. Then after one of their midnight brawls he cried and begged so that he even asked her to marry him. And that’s how Burlesque comedian Baltimore Brown became her first husband.

Chapter Four

First her sex life and now her surprise marriage became a constant source of gossip around the theater. Everybody had an opinion, even the strippers. There were those who didn’t want to see her and Baltimore together and those that didn’t car e either way. “Girl, how will you know how it was if you ain’t got nothin’ to compare it to?” they’d ask. She never thought much about the time she spent in bed with Baltimore . “Just lay there... it’s usually over quicker than you know it.” Fayetta had told her once. But the older strippers wanted to know everything her new husband did to her and everything he had her do to him. Trouble was, wasn’t much to tell. “Missionary style every night…you poor thing,” they’d say. “That’s like eating the same food everyday. Don’t men think a gal need some variety?” “Yeah, but this child here still innocent. I bet Baltimore gittin’ it one way or another somewhere else.” “How you know?” “Now how you think?” Most times it was like this, someone else spoke up like she wasn’t even present. The girls would go back and forth, just like a game of croquette. “Don’t listen to her Harriet. She’s just tryin’ to cause trouble.” “Sez who?” “Sez me. “Then why cain’t she answer?. Or does he think for her too?” “Leave her alone. She’s in love. Haven’t you ever been in love?” “Watch yo mouth, of course I have. But what she’s feeling ain’t love and we all know it. She just needs a man. That’s all.” “Well Baltimore ain’t it.”

“Who would you suggest?.” “Ummm. . .what about Rudy?” “Rudy? You mean Pretty Rudolph? Paul’s son?” All conversation ceased as they looked at her, then looked back at each other. They looked her way again, and slowly each of them began to nod, as if it wasn’t a half bad suggestion. “He’s so pretty. Pretty Rudy. A girl needs a pretty man to compare with someone like Baltimore.” “Did you know Rudy’s mama and Paul ain’t married, but Paul claims him as his . . . now that’s a good man.” “And Rudy’s closer to her age. At least he’s ‘bout twenty.” “Umm—hum . . .Rudy knows what to do in the sack. . .” “And how you know?” “How you think?” came the last sly retort. Harriet just sat there, thrilled to be the center of attention and wondering how Rudolph would take their matchmaking, cuz Rudolph had moss green eyes and alabaster skin. So she could see why he was real conceited. But as particular as he acted when he realized he’d been picked to be her lover, he truly seemed like he was more excited than she was. She knew Rudolph was what the gals called a cock hound, a man who’d chase after anything in a skirt just to get some. But they still set her up with him. The strippers planned the day and the time. She was so flattered after he agreed she went along with it without fuss or questioning. They even used the couch in Paul’s office as their bed. “You just wanna have my baby don’t you?. All the ladies wanna have my baby...” Rudolph said, slowly running his fingers over her thighs and pinching her skin, like a butcher weighing a rack of lamb. Rudolph talked like he could read a woman’s mind as well as he could read her body. “I don’t want no baby by you,” she said. That was a surprise to him. But it was the truth. She really didn’t want a child of hers coming out looking like a girl she once went to school with named Emily, a child lily white but colored just the same. Still, she liked that he didn’t just jump inside her the way Baltimore always did. Naw, Rudy took his time

cuz he said he got joy watching the changing expressions on a woman’s face during that crucial moment. He did things to her she usually punched somebody for even mentioning. Rudolph didn’t like to sweat. And he didn’t believe in all that hollerin’ most folks did while they humped. None of that “Come on baby, come to papa” stuff for Rudolph. Cuz Rudolph just let his hands do all the talking and the walkin’. He knew exactly which spots to hit to make her moan and scream. Still, she wondered if anybody was spying on them through the keyhole cuz she coulda sworn she’d heard whispers and muffled laughter. When it was over he seemed more satisfied than she was. He even gave her a kiss on the cheek. “You’re a good sport Harriet” he told her before leaving. She didn’t find out ‘til later that all the strippers had pooled their money, enough to wager a bet that Rudolph wouldn’t come with someone like her unless his private was in her mouth. After that she decided against having women friends altogether. Especially after those dirty heffas couldn’t wait to tell Baltimore she’d been unfaithful. She figured that was the only way he coulda known about her and Rudolph. On the other hand, maybe her hanging ‘round backstage where Rudolph was all the time probably made her husband suspicious. At least common sense told her to deny it when he confronted her. “But I ain‘t did nothin!” she screamed each time he hit her. He was pounding her about the head and even when he swung and missed she cried out as if he were killing her. There was no force to his blows cuz just like liquor had slowly eaten away at his talent, his strength was gone too. It didn’t matter though. The blows of her internal guilt hit hardest of all. Guilt ate away at her insides. Guilt and longing. Her dreams were of Rudolph, her heart ached to be near him. But he didn’t want her. He’d used her body one time and then discarded her, enamored at her murky blackness and bountiful measurements only once. “But I ain’t do nothin” she wept, sobs racking her chest so hard Baltimore was moved by all the emotion, thinking she truly felt guilt over him. She cowered under the blows, seeking some kind of excuse, some form of release from her nagging conscience. Baltimore staggered backwards and pointed a wavering finger her way. “I don’t care if yo hole dry up and close. Don’t no woman fool around on Baltimore Brown. I’m a one woman hear me?. You been listenin’ to them wenches’ next door...” He

slammed his fist against the wall, causing the giggling eavesdroppers in the next room to scurry for safety. “You owe people money, lots of money,” she shouted back at him. He gave her a lazy, cross eyed grin. “So? When I make it big they’ll git it all back” “You ain’t gon’ never make it big….” she mumbled. He rushed at her, slapping her across the face. It stunned her, that even in his drunken state his lost dream could still hurt him so. “You ain’t never gonna make it big!!” she screamed, this time louder. He’d heard her. Unable to even muster the strength to strike back, he began that silly drunken mumbling he always did. He reverted to talking to himself. The first time she’d heard it she could have sworn there was someone else in the room, someone actually talking back to him. But no, there he was, carrying on a conversation with himself, a lone dialogue punctuated with anger, at times rising and ending with wild laughter. “I’m taking my act to Broadway. I got an auditi on. I got a standing audition….he say anytime…he say Baltimore, anytime you ready you got a part. I‘m ready, I’m almost ready now…I’m ready to make it big with or without yo ugly ass.” “What you whispering ‘bout. I hate it when you git to talkin’ crazy...” she finally admitted. He looked at her through glassy, blood shot eyes, the eyes of an ancient elephant laying down to draw his last breath in a vast, mist covered bone graveyard. She was a big game hunter readying her gun. She lowered it, then raised it again, ready to fire. Put him out of his misery. Do it. Do it for Rudolph. “You ain’t never gonna be no big star. You way too old and you ain’t even funn y any more. It’s all over for you old man” she declared. “Only thing you ‘bout ready to do is die.” Her bold words chilled him. He clutched his heart. Her aim was true. The elephant gave one last shuddering sigh and then, gave up its life. Baltimore became one of the living dead, dutifully going through their performances, letting her take the lead and the best jokes. She’d broken him . He was just acting out her wishes, trying in some small way to help her prediction come true. The stronger she got the weaker he became. Rudolph came back, intrigued by her new sense of self, her glowing aura on stage. Rudolph came back and she confidently paraded her lover in her husband’s face. Sometimes Baltimore would be sprawled on the f loor in a drunken

stupor while Harriet and Rudolph would be right on the mattress next to him. She had the best of both worlds. Baltimore was her husband and comedy partner while Rudolph was her lover. And Rudolph was becoming a pretty fair business manager. Because he could pass for white, Rudolph was instrumental in obtaining work for the comedy duo of “Baltimore and his Honey” outside of his father’s theater. Most t imes they were the only colored act on the bill because the white theater owners didn’t want to offend their patrons. When they played the vaudeville circuit they could never look at the audience directly, mainly cuz white folks would think they were putting on airs. Baltimore’s shows got less and less comedic and more and more sadder. It was like he knew he’d lost her. He developed a new bit for their act that didn’t even have her in it. It was a pantomime where he was all alone on stage under a bleak spotlight, sorrowful cuz he had no money, no friends, no home. It went over real well, especially touching the emotions of the poor white folks. Melancholy became his new partner.

For two days straight Baltimore moaned and tossed in the bed. She rocked front and back in her chair and she’d rub his head to try and soothe him as he talked. He talked about his former friends Noble Sissel and Eubie Blake. He groaned and hallucinated about why he didn’t make it on Broadway. He talked about the white investors that had come to see the show, and how he’d been drunk because he was nervous, and because he was nervous and drunk he said some things that never shoulda been said. He felt he’d let the whole cast down. He’d been sending Sissel and Eubie his apologies ever since. When Baltimore stopped talking she grew afraid. His twitching body and fossilized skin told her something was wrong. She sent for Rudolph. Rudolph would know what to do. As soon as he got there Rudolph held her tight in his arms. If the occasion wasn’ t so tragic then their embrace coulda been romantic. Rudy was a real comfort to her. He’d grown fond of Baltimore during the time they were all together. Maybe it was guilt because he was sleeping with another man’s woman. Or maybe it was cuz he felt sorry for a dying man. “He won’t get up. He can’t. He’s real sick Rudy,” she cried.

Rudy’s cream colored face didn’t appear to be worried. “Maybe he just needs a drink.” “No, it’s worse than that. I think he’s dying.” Rudolph pondered the situation. He walked around the four corners of the mattress like a pool player deliberating over a bank shot as opposed to a scratch. He didn’t want Baltimore’s death on his conscience. Rudy stood over the bed, looking down at a human pool stick inside soiled long johns. Pulling a crumpled telegram from his pocket, he debated whether to read it to the comatose man. “Hey old fella. I got some real good news for ya. For both of y’all.” When Baltimore’s eyes didn’t open Rudy stepped back, afraid the man had already passed. “Broadway wants us Baltimore,” Honi whispered, her broad face wet with tears. “Eubie wants you to take over Bert Williams’ role in “Shuffle Along.” Baltimore didn’t move a muscle. She didn’t even see his mouth move when he spoke. It was like watchin’ one of those talkin’ dummies, only nobody was behind his back making him speak. “They not mad no mo?” she could swear he somehow asked. “No, they ain’t never been mad, she wept. “They told me so. They knew all along it was the drink talkin’ and not you, they knowed it.” Baltimore’s eyes finally opened, doubt clouding them. Rudy spoke up. “They can’t be here because they’ve got a traveling revue of ‘Shuffle Along’ opening in another city. But they sent a telegram. Look.” “He can’t read Rudy. Be a pal and read it to him.” she said, clearly anguished. Rudy started reading with a shaky voice that got more strained as he kept going. “Baltimore Brown . . . stop . . . please be advised we hear your routine is brilliant . . . stop. Would like you for our revival of Shuffle Along. On the Great White Way. Will be in town Monday. Hope to meet with you then . . . Noble Sissel and Eubie Blake.”

Baltimore expired sometime past five in the morning. She closed his eyes and pulled a sheet up over his face with more water running out her eyes than the whole of

Niagara Falls. She kept remembering how funny he could be, how he’d threaten people with “If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll git my big woman on ya.” Every time she looked around the room and saw things of his, like that crooked bowler hat hanging on the bed post she couldn’t help but weep. “I wanna thank you Rudolph for that phony telegram. I know it made him happy in the end” she bawled, glad to see Rudolph did have some redeeming qualities. He looked puzzled. “I didn’t send that telegram Honi. I just picked it up that’s all. Eubie and Sissel really did want him right away, and that’s the honest to God’s truth.”

Present Day

They’d been ushered into a private room, and like boxers, her mother and her father’s aunt stood in neutral corners, each one with their own entourage. Lyndsey Latimore watched it all unfold with a mixture of giggles and sadness. Aunt Honi had her home care aides at her side, the testy but tastefully dressed Terri, a male nurse, and Tasha, an aide who kept giving her mother the evil eye. Contessa Earle’s ladies in waiting were dressed in gold jewelry and fitted leather pantsuits, looking like they could break into a harmonizing background chorus at any moment. Still a statuesque beauty at sixty-six years of age, R&B diva Contessa Earle looked ready for the cover of Essence magazine, with her grey blonde hair and false eyelashes so long and thick they could pass for two centipedes stuck on her eyes. Lyndsey was constantly told she looked like her mother, but she couldn’t see it. They were almost the same height, but her mother’s face was heart shaped, while hers was oval, like her father’s. And she had his same round, molasses brown eyes. She hated the auburn weave falling just past her shoulders, a look she’d worn since the Cannes Film Festival. Everyone else bragged on it, so she just kept it. But she preferred a short hair. Her mother’s sister was also there running interference, the once svelte but now heavyset Queenie Earle. Queenie’s claim to fame was her tell all book as a movie extra in countless slave maiden parts during the 1950’s. Hollywood’s love affair with sword and sandal epics put Queenie’s ample figure on display for movies such as “The Robe” and then the sequel “Demetrius and the Gladiators.” In the book she’d dished on all the A and B list stars that she’d either slept with, or who wanted to sleep with her. And there she was, the dutiful daughter trapped in the middle of all this estrogen, avoiding calls from a publicist who’d suggested her father’s heart attack would translate into Oscar votes.

Somehow they’d all arrived at the hospital in record time. She knew her mother was always out and about, but Aunt Honi never left home. It must have been the influence of Terri, her willowy, waif like assistant slash nurse, slash confidant, slash semi bodyguard. He was good for the ego, always gushing about what a big star Aunt Honi still was, and that she needed to know the nation thought of her as a national treasure, not a traitor to her race. “Your Grand Aunt thinks people hate her, because of the parts she used to play,” he’d revealed after cornering her to talk about Honi. “I’ve been trying to convince her that nobody cares about that stuff anymore. People understand why she said what she did during the Communist hearings in the 50’s. Nobody’s mad anymore about the picture of her hugging George Wallace, or all the other stuff.” She’d agreed with him, and so they’d secretly worked together on “Project Runway Honi ” texting each other and encouraging her Aunt to venture out and meet her adoring public. Now here Aunt Honi was, in a room too small for all of them. She wondered when this tenuous peace would end, the silent acknowledgement of her mother to her father’s aunt, while Aunt Honi threw fiery glances toward her mother, crackling the room with tension. With their history of dislike for one another, it happened suddenly. An overly ambitious photog clothed as a member of the hospital staff calmly snuck in. There was angry shrieking and finger pointing as the women and one man surrounded the poor fool like an attacking flock of geese. He was greeted with screaming profanity, threatened and finally Tasha grabbed him by the collar and tossed him out. Then it was back to their respective corners, high fiving each other over who’d said what . Throughout the ruckus neither her mother nor her aunt said a word. She’d watched both women in fascination. They were seasoned pros in front of the press and the public, letting the loudest members of their entourage state their case. Didn’t that reporter know? Didn’t he realize that he couldn’t just walk in and get an interview without following protocol? First he had to kiss the ass of the living legend, Honi Hawkins. Then he had to faint at the feet of the self proclaimed Queen of R&B, Contessa Earle. What was he thinking, walking straight towards her, just because she was nominated for an Oscar? No…those ladies came first. His arm had been outstretched as he’d waved his phone at her, his eyes fairly pleading for a quote just before being swallowed up by the protective mob. What could she possibly tell him? That they still

didn’t know her father’s condition? No…he hadn’t come for that info. He wanted to know about her, probably with the same questions she’d been asked ever since the picture had been released. How’d she feel about Spike Lee’s comments? And what about the report that the NAACP was considering picketing the Oscars? Would he be shocked to know she really didn’t care? How about the real burning question, that she’d lucked out with her first role, and somehow got a supporting Oscar nomination. Hey, shit happens. Could she tell him that deep down she wished she’d never landed the part, because now she was trapped. Soon she’d need an entourage, because she’d be just as addicted to the spotlight, and she’d crave to see her name in headlines or she’d cuss and bark at her publicist just like her mother did. Could she reveal even if she did win an Oscar, Aunt Honi would constantly throw it in her face, nagging that she had to bare her breasts just to get it. Fear tugged at her, making her wonder if somehow, someway that reporter had learned her secret. Because ironically, this was the same hospital her own doctor practiced out of. No, let me tell my family first. Them first before the public. A panic attack was coming, she could feel it. Bile churned, then pushed past her stomach, rising in her chest, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. She had to get out of there. Her mother clicked those hideously long Fu Manchu fingernails at her, nails that had long gone out of style, only her “handlers” were too scared to tell her. “Lyndsey? W here are you going?” she fairly screeched from across the room. “Lyndsey? I need you-” Mother, you’re so good at emoting. But you’re such a bad liar... Still, she stopped at the door and turned to give her mother a sweet smile. “I’ll be right back. I just want to see if I can try to get information on Daddy.” God . . . she’d turned out to be just as bad a liar. Contessa dropped her head, giving her daughter a trembling half smile, where the left side of her mouth rose in a nervous tic and the right stayed straight, her eyes sleepy lidded. The thought of her mother’s previous stroke ran through Lyndsey’s mind. Still, she stuck the knife in further. “And I want to get some coffee for Aunt Honi. You know how much she loves coffee”

Contessa loudly sucked in her breath, as if she was trying to take out all the air in the room. Tasha and Terri started laughing. Let the bickering begin ladies. I’ve got to get out of here. And starting an argument between you two is a great cover. She walked out but had to lean on the closed door for strength, overhearing the no holds barred cat fight. Aunt Honi fired the first shot. “You ain’t never been a mother to her. Cain’t you see she can’t stand you?” “You and David poisoned my own child against were always jealous because you could never have a child, so you tried to take mine-” Contessa countered. Yada yada yada. Same old same old with those two. Her father had been right all along. They’d played tug of war with him, and loved doing the same thing with her. No, she couldn’t tell the press anything. If she somehow saw that guy again, she’d apologize for what happened and put a smile on her face. She’d have something rehearsed and polished to say. Because show business ran deep in both sides of her family. It ran real deep. And so did bullshit.

“Hey sugar, can you help me with this?” The nurse couldn’t believe her eyes. At three o’clock on a Sunday morning, standing beside the cafeteria coffee machine, stood a diva . . . a star . . . a legend. R & B royalty. Contessa Earle looked helpless and flustered, smiling with glorious capped teeth, golden pumps and a shiny tailored pantsuit befitting her celebrity. Her arms were extended in welcome and her fingers were moving like she was playing a piano as she beckoned. It was the same gesture she used on stage, reaching out to the audience, flicking the air dramatically to touch the TV viewers, drawing them into her emotional interpretation of a song. And oh my god! When she sang the National Anthem at the NBA finals during the eighties, in those oversized sun glasses, skin tight stretch suit and wild shock of hair. “Oh Miss Earl, I can call you Miss Earle, right?”

Contessa gave the woman a gracious smile and listened in pained tolerance throughout all the gushing and repeating of how shocked Jenny was to meet a star of her caliber and how no one would believe her when she got home. Nurse Jenny Baumgartner had never been this close to someone important in her life. Well there was that one time in Vegas, where she’d had seats for a Wayne Newton show. But they weren’t front row seats, and the only reason she seen Wayne up close was she almost bumped into him in his haste to get to the stage, and her rush to find the ladies room. Just like one of those silent models on a game show, Jean pointed and waved as she explained the workings of the hot drink machines. “This can be tricky. The union’s been fighting for this for a while. You have to push the button and pull this lever down for it to pour. But it’s gotta be done at the same time.” “Oh sugar, thank you. Thank you so much.” If that nurse had come in any earlier, she would’ve seen a cursing up a blue streak Contessa, hotly frustrated at figuring out which button was for cocoa and which one was for coffee. “Miss Earle, may I get an autograph?” “Sure you can. You got a pen?”

Jean Baumgartner left with a smile on her face and a signature from one of the biggest stars of her youth on her uniform. She’d never wash that outfit again. She’d send it to the cleaners and have it sealed in plastic, just like she’d done with her wedding dress. Only this time she’d put it in a frame and hang it right over the couch in her living room.

She’d done it. She’d made her way to the cafeteria and got her own coffee. Everyone else was asleep or had gone home. But Contessa vowed to stay, determined to see this thing through. If David expired during the night she wanted to be here. And if she knew where ICU was, she’d be right at his bedside, no matter what his Aunt said. Hell, they were still married. After all these years they’d never gotten around to formally

divorcing. As his wife she could make a scene, she could demand to sit at his bedside. But then she risked further alienating Lyndsey. So fuck it. She had her coffee. It would have to do for now.

Chapter Five

One look outside and the dew filled air foretold the hour was somewhere between dusk and dawn. Inside the speakeasy was still packin’ ‘em in. That’s because the patrons were just like cattle, grazing from one hot spot to another or “bar hoppin” as they called it. The next day was already here only they weren’t ready to accept an end to their drunken reverie, especially when blues sensation Honi Hawkins was on stage. Thick as a cluster of flies and closing in on the rickety stage like a rolling fog, the mostly colored crowd with a few dots of white sprinkled here and there wanted more. “Take y’all self’s home dammit!” she barked, her voice as low and threatening as the cleavage on her dress. “But we love you Honi!” somebody yelled from out of the jammed rhythmic sea of poor working stiffs eager to have a good time. “Go to hell!” she yelled right back, meaning every word. Sweat was ma king her real hair underneath her wig bead up and turn nappy. She’d just got that brunette horsehair wig direct from Paris, France. It was short, cut just above her cheeks with long bangs styled along the likes of Clara Bow’s do. Now it was pasted limp and wet against her forehead. She had a double strand pearl choker sliding around her neck as perspiration ran into the steep levy of her heavy bosom. There was steam building between her thighs and the purple and green emerald peacock fan she’d been holding all night was steadily losing feathers. With a yellow light bulb as her spotlight and howling through a rusty mike, she sounded for all the world like a coyote baying at the moon. Standing in the middle of the stage with her pillar strong legs set wide apart, hands on hips and her beaded dress hiked well above her knees, she was a show stopper. A make shift band played behind her as she got to talking about how bad she needed a man to take her away from all her misery.

“Lord, don’t send me no more boys to do the job of a man when I’m all alone,” she groaned low and hard, breaking into song. “Cuz the last one you sent, I had to give ‘em candy and send him home…” People threw their hands up in praise of her lyrics just like they were in church. “So baby boy don’t you worry. Cuz before the night is through, you’ll tell your mama that Honi Hawkins made a man outta you.” The crowd gave a unified roaring hoot, believing since she’d said it then it must be true. She sang the words with relish, all the while cutting her eyes toward the bar. That handsome dark skinned boy in a yellow zoot suit was just sitting there. She’d told him she’d written a song just for him so he should be feeling mighty flattered right now. The piano man managed to plunk out a mean roll on them eighty eight keys, some of which were missing or out of tune. The box board guitar player, or as she liked to call him “git—tar” player was a well traveled bluesman, the others were local musicians filling in. She had this dance she did when the music got good to her. She called it her hoochie-coochie dance, where she’d grab a hold of her dress at the thighs and then bump from side to side with her butt just a shakin’ up in the air as she worked her whole body into it. She’d inch that dress so far up her legs until it was nothing but an itty-bitty thang by the end of the night. Sometimes she’d work all the way down to the floor dancing. People had never seen anything like it, especially with a gal so big and sexy doing it, just like she was a Reet Petite. It was all for show, something to take colored folks minds off killin’ each other. Even women were known to carry a knife or a gun. Honi had both. And she was real fond of her pearl handled pistol. She came in tonight with it under her full length overcoat of shiny black ostrich feathers. She’d throw that coat around her shoulders dramatically, ‘cause she walked like a film vamp. She carried a long cigarette holder too, just because she’d seen Josephine Baker sashay into a club with one clasp between her lips and it made her think she could look just as divine. When she sang it was usually about cheatin, won’t do right, no nothin’ men. “Nothin’ an old man can do for me except leave me some money in his will,” she’d joke on stage. It was common knowledge that she preferred younger men. Because they could be trained. Their eagerness was contagious, with the attention they lavished on a woman when things were fresh, when the relationship was new. She had a need for attention, for a man to want her despite her faults. Maybe it was because she hadn’t felt wanted or loved

enough as a kid. So she had to know the crowd loved her. She lived for the limelight. It seemed whenever someone told her she couldn’t do something she moved heaven and earth to do it just to rile them. She fought back with the only thing she was certain of. Her quick tongue had never let her down. So she did the shocking, she did the cussin’. Like tonight. Each time she strayed from her song and spoke to the crowd a long toothed woman with a malnourished beau at her side had the nerve to loudly chastise her about it. Too bad, since she felt trigger happy tonight. Looking at the woman’s companion she quipped, “And what do you wanna be when you grow up little boy?” The guy was game enough to fire something back. He even made a big show out of pulling his zipper down just to prove his point. She proceeded to stop him with “Lord have mercy. Is that it? Well where is it at? Somebody, ay anybody got a magnifying glass? Boy you gonna need some tweezers to pull that thang out. Now you know you oughta be ashamed of yo self. Honey chile this man so puny. Take my word for it y’all. I’d look all over this fool lookin’ for a man. Cuz he so little. Watch out so he don’t think he can git ya drunk so’s you won’t notice. Then you’ll be laying in the bed waitin’ for somethin’ to happen and he’s already finished . . . only you ain’t notice cuz he’s so tiny.” Deciding he’d had enough and wanting to defend his manh ood, the guy made the mistake of climbing on the stage. That made Sweet, the club doorman slowly raise his huge bulk off a stool, shotgun in hand. But standing up to Honi was like facing a grizzly bear. “Don’t nobody set foot on my stage but me and my band ,” she bellowed, knocking that fool back into the crowd. Sweet calmly sat back down. “I’d a took care of that if Honi really needed my help,” he explained to the two sweater clad, bow tied young men paying the fifty cent cover charge. “That’s Honi Hawkins isn’t it?” the taller of the two with hazel eyes as light as a slice of lemon asked. Sweet wouldn’t say yes or no. “Y’all ain’t the cops are ya? Cuz we already paid this week.” “Oh no, we just came to see Honi Hawkins. She’s really something isn’t she?” the shorter olive skinned one answered, his eyes transfixed on the stage.

“Yea, that woman’s a hellcat. I didn’t mean to ask no questions ‘bout y’all. It’s just that we don’t usually get your kind in here often,” Sweet told them. “Oh you mean you don’t usually get many white people in here,” the taller one said. Excitement was all in his voice as he did a jaunty bounce to the music. “We get white folks in here all the time. Only not white folks like you. If y’all not cops what are ya? Are y’all college boys?” Sweet figured right. They were two fresh faced college boys slummin’ on the colored side of town. Somehow they’d got the word that Honi Hawkins was performing in one of the after hour joints and they’d tracked her down. Along the way they’d picked up two goodlooking colored gals, a pretty light skinned one named Ava, the other a nonstop talker named Rochelle. “Say, we’d really like to meet her. Is there any chance of that?” the tall one inquired. Sweet massaged his chin, appearing to be deep in thought. “Well, Honi don’t really like conversin’, especially with folks she don’t know.” “We’d really appreciate it,” the short one said, putting three dollars in Sweet’s outstretched palm. “Could you spare a little more man? I might can see if she’ll sit with ya . . .” The tall fella gladly gave up two more. “Is this what y’all dragged us all over town for?” Rochelle pouted, giving Ava a disappointed glare when she didn’t back her up. Rochelle was biscuit brown and always ready for a good time. “Seth, did you hear me?” “Yes. Isn’t she wonderful?” the tall one called Seth answered , sounding lovestruck as he watched Honi perform. Women look at other women, no matter how secure they tell themselves that they are. They look at hair, whether you got any or not. And if you got any then they wanna know if it’s really yours. If it is yours and not store bought they wanna know if it gr ows straight naturally or if you use lye. Then they compare brightness of skin, legs, butts and breasts because these are the things that a man looks at. But when most colored gals looked at Honi Hawkins they couldn’t see anything of face value.

“She looks like a big old black buffalo,” Rochelle admitted under her breath. “I dunno. It just don’t figure how a colored woman so burly and dark as she is got to be a famous singer.”


Sweet was as good as his word. He split the money with Honi and pointed out a table where four people sat looking like night versus day. Those white boys fell all over themselves trying to accommodate her. They stuttered saying hello and offered nervous sweaty hands for her to shake, almost forgettin’ to give her a chair and a drink. “So what made you come all the way to California?” Rochelle asked, more like a census taker than an admirer. Honi caught the attitude in her voice right away. “Can’t you see? She’s got a travelin’ show . . . probably been all over the country. This is all so exciting!” the short cute gal named Ava exclaimed. Honi’s tone was world weary. “That would be nice if it was true. But t ruth is I really came out here following behind a man, then found myself in the middle of nowhere and I says girl, you best be gettin’ you a job so’s you can eat . . . ” Seth with the golden eyes quickly leaned over to light her cigarette. “Welcome to California, Miss Hawkins.” Inhaling her cigarette, Honi wondered if he only liked bright skinned colored gals. “Thank you . . . so what y’all want with me?” Both men started talking at the same time. Then Seth nodded for his friend to go ahead. “Well you see Miss Hawkins, may I call you Honi?” Jerry wondered. “Only my friends call me Honi. Only my real good friends. Y’all can keep calling me Miss Hawkins. That’ll do just fine.” Jerry cleared his throat. “Well Miss Hawkins, we first want to say we think you’re wonderful, just swell. And we . . . we’re from Hollywoodland, right here in California, where they make moving pictures. Do you-do you like Hollywood?” She gave him a nod and the taller one named Seth broke in. “What we want to ask you, what we’d like you to consider is for you to think about coming out to Hollywood.” She gave a snort of a laugh in reply. “For what?”

“To be an actress in the talkies. To be a star. A movie star-” “Chile, I’m already a star!” “Yes you are Miss Hawkins. But you could be an even bigger star in Hollywood. This new colored sound, this blues music. It’s all the rage-” Seth piped up. “Damn! What size shoe you wear gal?” Honi blurted, staring at Ava’s feet. “Your feet! They so little! What you wear, ‘bout a five?” “Five or a six, it depends on the shoe,” Ava said. “Hmm.” Honi said it real low like she’d moved on to something more important than the size of another woman’s toes. But little feet were peculiar to her. They were like doll feet. Seems everything on Ava was small and dainty. “Naw, I couldn’t fit yo shoes even if I wanted to cuz I wear a size eleven. My feet are just like horses. That’s what my Ma always said. She’d get mad cuz I’d bust outta my good shoes and she’d get to hollerin’ ‘bout how my feet was just like horses.” Ava smiled at her. It was serene, like a religious painting of Mother Mary staring down at her worshipers. “Your feet fit your body. You’re a big girl Miss Hawkins. How would it look with you being so big and having little feet?” Ava said. Honi agreed, as if she’d come to that conclusion on her own accord. “Be just as funny as you being as little as you are and having my big ass feet. So I guess things is like this for a reason.” Nervous laughter followed her comment, then the group fell silent, content to just watch her finish a drink in one loud gulp. She was every bit as tall as Seth was and twice his width. Jerry studied Greek Mythology in college and if ever there was truly a thing as an Amazon, then he decided Honi Hawkins had to be a descendant. “Y’all know I could use another drink,” she stated, as if it should a been obvious. Seth was the first to jump to her command while Rochelle finally convinced Jerry to take a turn on the dance floor. “I wanna see y’all cut loose now. Y’all better work out. Don’t let me haff ta come show you how it’s done,” Honi kidded. Jerry looked chagrined as Rochelle pulled him reluctantly through shiny brown bodies stomping ‘round and down on a f loor filled with more splinters than solid wood. People were flapping their arms behind their backs in ecstasy or doubled over just a flailing

away and shaking with all their might, grinding those jumping splinters into pure sawdust. The blues had the kind a rhythm that could do that to a person. But leaving Honi and Ava at the table by themselves was like giving a fox the run of the chicken coup. She started in on Ava as soon they were alone, showing off a diamond the size of peach pit. “I bet them shoes you got come from that white boy didn’t they?” Honi said. “Sister, you need to have that man buy you some jewelry. Lookie here.” Ava complimented Honi on her good taste. “Oh this ole thang?” Honi laughed. “Man bought this for me ‘bout, I think it was in 1929 or 1928. ‘Bout the same time as the stock market crash. Then he wanted it back, talking ‘bout he was broke. I say sure you is baby. But I’ll be in the same boat if I give this up.” Ava didn’t chuckle like everyone else did when she told that story. She just idly ran her fingers over the rim of her drinking glass as her eyes roamed in the direction of Rochelle and Jerry on the dance floor. Honi kept talking but Ava just kept smiling that same unreadable smile. The band switched to a slow blues number and the lights dimmed. Whe music changed along with Honi’s conversation. “Say sister, is them white boy’s for real? Talking ‘bout me and Hollywood-” “Seth is serious, Miz Hawkins. You should listen to him.” “Why? Shoot, I don’t know him from Adam,” she sniffed. “Men always lying.” “I understand if you don’t care to accept his offer. Why would you want to leave all this?” That made her chuckle. Yes siree Bob. All this. A dive that supplied her with all the free booze she could drink. A record company that refused to pay her any royalties for the many songs she’d written. Yeah. She was a star alright. A broke one. “He say, he say white college kids collect my records?” she asked, not sure if she should believe it but wanting to just the same. “Miz Hawkins, your music’s played in college dorms all across the country,” Ava insisted. “You’re pulling my leg. Tell me something for true, between you me me little sister, between us two colored gals. You really think I could be a movie star?”

Ava nodded yes and Honi smiled. Seth had come up behind her chair, just listening to their conversation before he piped up with, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so.” And then Jerry chimed in though he was out of breath from dancing. “We wouldn’t have come to this place to find you if we didn’t think so. Right now we’re only part-time staff writers at Paramount, that is until we graduate from school. But we’ve got our foot in the door and who knows?” “No kiddin.’ No fooling huh fellas?” she asked. Talk was always easy. It was the doin’ that was the hard part. Her round brown face was glowing now. The prospect of being up there on the big screen was an enticing thought. “Dis studio, dis Paramount Pictures, they pay colored the same as they do white?” Seth paused, measuring his words. “Well, I can’t lie to you Miss Hawkins. I think you’d be making almost as much . . . ” “And I bet you’d make more than any colored anywhere.” Rochelle added, sounding real jealous. Honi winked at Ava. “. . . then perhaps I might just do that. I might just think about it. I might just take y’all up on that.”

End of Excerpt

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