All afternoon she does battle with the keyboard, pausing only to ram her bifocals upward with an exasperated knuckle or yank out some more of her hair. Your heart is an icicle, she accuses her heroine. Your gestures—are you made of tin? she inquires of her hero, kicking his ankles for good measure. And as for you, she sneers at her comic relief, you are a worthless ham; somebody should hook you off the page.
On and on she labors with uncooperative characters trapped in an unmemorable tale that will make some editor gag. Finally, she reads what she has written, groans like a dying basso, and turns her back on the keyboard . . . and notices that it is dusk, when doors open by themselves.
Her closet door obliges. A long black dress pops out. She peels off her working rags and wriggles into the black dress and whirls her mistreated hair into a chignon and pastes a pair of false eyelashes over her own. She applies lipstick and perfume, and she pins to her shoulder a huge sunburst pin, which would be diamonds if it weren’t rhinestones. Then she covers all this glamour with a hooded trench coat. Its pockets bulge as if each contained a puppy. Still wearing specs and clogs, she plods toward the subway and manages—just—not to plummet down the stairs . . . This is the way a story might begin, she’ll tell her students: a person in ill-assorted garb, a hurried journey, night.
She arrives at a street of cabarets. She walks down an alley and enters the back door of one of them and slips into a room. Its nameplate says Chanteuse.
Off with the trenchcoat. Off with the clogs. On with green stilettos from the trenchcoat’s pockets. The Chanteuse’s corrected eyesight is 20-20. Off with the spectacles. She reclaims her natural vision: haze. The microphone announces her nom de fantasie. She glides across the stage of the cabaret, and into the blessed spotlight.
She leans against the piano and surveys the audience, smiling at one blurred face and another, and then she nods to her tuxedoed accompanist, a dead ringer for Noel Coward. They begin.
Someday I’ll find you, moonlight behind you
true to the dream I am dreaming.
As I draw near you, you’ll smile a little smile,
for a little while, we shall stand, hand in hand.
I’ll leave you never, love you forever,
all our past sorrow redeeming,
try and make it true, say you need me too,
someday I’ll find you again.
It’s the old story, isn’t it, the only story—love, loss, longing. She moves into other selections from her repertoire: Parlez Moi D’Amour, Someone to Watch Over Me, Falling in Love Again, and others and others, and, at the end of the set, her signature torch, The Rest of Your Life.
Its melody might have been written for her. The range of the chorus is less than an octave—her comfort zone. The break—the middle section—does include notes beyond that octave, but instead of singing she husks the lyrics:
I want to see your face in every kind of light
In fields of gold and forests of the night
The stilled listeners look at her. She, with her foggy vision, pseudo-looks at them. She sings a line, speaks a line, hums. And every person in the room, male and female, is certain that she is confiding to them alone. She is partner to each. Together they achieve a communion unimagined by people who merely love each other. It is the thrilling understanding between singer and listener . . . between writer and reader. Deep intimacy with each member of an audience—that’s what our chanteuse strenuously seeks.
I am singing this only to you.
The first set ends. At her request there is no clapping. She sinks into a chair beside a little table and drinks a Manhattan. People approach.
A French hero—if you can believe his clothing and his medal—whispers “Cherie. Midnight. My place.” A banker soon to be incarcerated kisses both her cheeks, both her hands, dives for the knees. The bouncer edges him away. Emergency technicians carry out an elderly man who has fainted with ecstasy. She blows a kiss toward the stretcher.
The second set dives into melancholy farewells: I’ll Be Seeing You, We’ll Meet Again, Danny Boy (her brogue is impeccable) . . .
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warmer sweeter be
For you will bend and tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
Tears fall, drenching tables. Martini glasses glide like skaters. But her own disciplined eyes remain dry. The pianist passes out, and his empty bottle rolls across the stage. Alone, she sits down at the keys to accompany herself in the last song, which was also the first. Good stories come full circle.
Try and make it true
Say you need me too
Someday I’ll find you again.
She stands. The applause . . . well, it’s deafening: sometimes only a cliché will do. She bows and bows; and then, with a wink of a faux eyelid she signals to the lighting man. The house turns dark. When the lights come on, she has vanished.
But in fact she’s in her dressing room buttoning the trenchcoat. Its pockets again bulge with green shoes. Glasses on her nose, clogs on her feet, she clumps her way home.
Morning finds her in front of the other keyboard, her old clothes glorified by the sunburst pin. She warms the heroine, unbends the hero, seasons the ham. She borrows chiaroscuro from the subway and steals a bit of louche dialogue from the nightclub. She tells a story of love, loss, longing, and transformation. It may be published and read by some; it may win a prize and be read by more. Deep intimacy with each of a thousand readers—that’s what our writer strenuously seeks.
Copyright © Edith Pearlman
I wrote this only for you.
Edith Pearlman’s fiction has appeared three times each in Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Collection, twice in The Pushcart Prize Collection, and once in Best Short Stories from the South. She is the author of three books of stories: Vaquita (1996), Love Among The Greats (2002), and How To Fall (2005). A fourth, Binocular Vision, will be published in 2011 by Lookout Books, a new imprint of The University of North Carolina Press at Wilmington, NC.
Poetry & Fiction