Darryl Lavigne was soaked to the bone. The mangled bar stool hunched him forward over the gin in his foggy glass, and his nostrils burned. His body was in a smoke-filled bar, just off of State street, in Chicago, Illinois: Cellar Door. His mind, however, was still out in the pelting rain.
Sarah’s last words echoed in his head, a vinyl record under a broken needle: “I can’t take it anymore, Puss. Most of it, I can live with: the late nights, the struggling, the fucking around—… but the lies, Darryl!”
The lies. Darryl squeezed his glass as his stomach tightened. He followed the record around and around in his mind: Struggling. Lies. Money. Lies. I can’t take it anymo—
A trumpet stab interrupted his deterioration. He looked up, wide-eyed, as the band delivered a loose interpretation of “Blue Skies.”
Darryl let the music relax him into his surroundings. Cellar Door was fairly typical for a jazz dive; the floor was sticky, the stage lights were blue, the patrons were weary, and the bartenders were probably buzzed on cocaine.
The band resolved on a cheeky bII chord, and the room dissolved into silence. The trumpet player, a young man in a cheap suit, motioned down toward Darryl’s saxophone case from the low stage.
Playing the trumpet must be more exhausting than it looks.
Darryl peeled himself from the bar stool. With a sigh, he kneeled down on the sticky carpet and quickly assembled his instrument. He cast off his sopping wet jacket, and ambled up onto the stage. The trumpet player nodded in gratitude, gesturing toward his own lips.
Must be REALLY exhausting.
“What’s your name, sax man?”
“Darryl La-what now?”
“Lah-veen-yay,” he intoned. As if the guy really cared.
“Lavigne. Okay. What do you wanna play?”
Darryl regarded the dim lights, the weary crowd, and the hypervigilant bartenders, and then chuckled softly to himself.
He looked back at the band, and muttered, “Nobody Knows You, When You’re Down and Out.”
Candace scanned the crowded ballroom over her Manhattan. Certain, after a song, that there was nothing to see but viridescent curtains and whirling swing-dancers, Candace lowered her drink, sighed in frustration, and turned toward the stage.
And there she was: Delilah VanRoth. “The Queen Between-the-Scenes.” The self-proclaimed “Duchess” of the jazz world. Befitting her titles, Delilah was dressed head-to-toe in New York’s latest finery: black Prada shoes, a supple mink coat, and an obnoxious, lavender hat with an ostrich feather dripping over the brim.
Candace set her shoulders and wove through the gyrating crowd, never taking her eye off the tall, feathered hat. Finally, after a Homeric traversal, Candace found herself contending, up-close, with the bluest, most crystalline irises she’d ever encountered. Delilah received her with an inquiring smolder, effusing Chanel no. 5. As if she’d be wearing anything else.
“Your Grace,” Candace scrambled to remember the line she’d prepared, “You know, a den of sin like this,” she gestured with her drink at the lively room, “is no place for a woman of your caliber.”
The Duchess simply stared for a moment, enigmatic as ever, but Candace held her silence. Just when Candace felt herself giving in, Delilah burst into a high-pitched giggle, and placed a hand gently on the singer’s arm. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” Delilah’s lilting British accent fell like exotic bells on Candace’s ears, “I’ve tried everywhere else. It didn’t work out. This is the only place I can run into people like yourself.”
“Singers?” Candace smirked.
“Lovers.” Delilah purred.
“Is that so?,” the Duchess laughed, “I wish I could pretend you didn’t already know my name.”
Candace beamed, and began to lean in, when a shark of a man swaggered up between the two women. Pretty young for an old guy. A large, gold coin wove itself between his fingers, and a straight-razor smile graced his lips as he looked up at the two women from below. “Duchess,” he crooned, “what are you doing on the floor? Shouldn’t you be backstage feeling up the bassist?” He bared his teeth in a wide, leering grin, and a singular gold tooth flashed out from between his lips
Delilah chuckled patiently. “Macky! A blessing, as always. Have you met my friend… Candace, was it? She’s a singer. A good one,” she winked.
Macky whirled on Candace, extruding skepticism. “Ya? How good?”
Candace began to retort, but Delilah intervened: “You should book her and find out. I know for fact that there’s an open spot in the Little’s calendar.”
The little man puckered his lips in thought, oscillating his gaze between the two women. Finally, he bared his wide shark-grin again, this time turned on the singer. “Any friend of The Duchess is a friend of mine! Are you free this Friday?”
Darryl’s knuckles, still stiff from the pre-dawn chill, rapped against the solid, white, wooden door. It opened on his lady love, Delilah: a God-Queen, peering down curiously at one of her many subjects.
He fought the familiar hypnosis and quickly scoured his mind for the words he came to say.
“Delilah,” he croaked, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve tried everything to keep this train running, but all I get from you are obstacles. Deflections.” He drew in a quick, air-conditioned breath, and straightened his spine. “I’m on the edge of something great, baby. And I need you. Right now!” Darryl realized he was practically shouting, and lowered his tone. “So-… so I need you to choose. It’s them–I know you got plenty–it’s them or me!”
He leveled his eyes in what he hoped was determination, but all he saw staring back at him was… pity?
Slowly, deliberately, she approached Darryl with caution, and suddenly, he felt small again.
“Oh, Pussycat.” The nickname landed heavy in his gut. Cruelly, Delilah laid her pity on his forehead: her lips pressed in, lingered for a lifetime, and then pulled away. With a sad smile, she stepped back into the darkness. “I’ll catch you on the other side.”
Darryl dropped to his knees on the thick carpet. He could only watch as his world disappeared, behind a painted, solid oak door.
“No way. Uh-uh. Get your lezzie ass back in that dressing room and Find. Something. ELSE!” Macky’s anger seethed, as he tried, vainly, to block the audience’s view of Candace’s legs.
The singer rolled her eyes. “Relax, Macky, nobody’s even looking. I don’t understand why you’re being so unreasonable; everyone else on stage is going to be wearing pants too!”
“Well everybody ELSE isn’t a fucking WOMAN, with her NAME ON THE FUCKING MARQUEE!”
Candace’s mind wandered as the man exercised his ignorance. Over his shoulder, she glimpsed her lady love, dressed in an open maroon button up and off-white slacks. The singer smiled as her lover meandered over to schmooze with a girl seated at a table on the edge of the dance floor. Candace took immense satisfaction from Delilah’s ensemble, and her presence. Thankfully, even Macky’s lecture disappeared as she lost herself in reverie… but her warm heart sank into her stomach as she realized what was actually happening. Delilah leaned over, and planted her hands gently on the seated girl’s shoulders. She brought her lips to the girl’s ear and drew out a delighted giggle that traveled through the crowd to light on Candace’s heart, and suddenly, her stomach turned to ice.
Her thoughts spiraled out into possessiveness, resentment, jealousy, and—
“Are you even listening to me? Never mind tonight, you think the METRO is gonna let you on stage looking like that??” Macky’s voice broke. He slowed his speech reproachfully. “Go. Backstage. And. CHANGE.” With every word, his face grew larger, older, and more demeaning.
Candace’s fear sublimated abruptly, and her eyes ignited as she turned on the little man. “You know what, Mack? You’re right. That IS my name on the fucking marquee.” The booker’s fury withered under the musician’s indignation. “Now you listen to me: I let you have your little hissy fit, but we both know you ain’t gonna find a replacement in 10 minutes, so how about you do us both a favor, huh? Get the fuck out of my face, get out in the club, and find yourself a good seat.” Candace straightened up and flared her nostrils. “House is pretty packed tonight, after all.”
Candace’s wide-eyed stare bored straight through the man’s irate facade. The silence between them crossed eras. At last, Macky dropped his head and broke down into a noxious chuckle. “It’s all good, baby. Have it your way, since you’re the boss now! Enjoy those shit-hole midwestern dives you started in, you’re gonna stay there for the rest of your so-called career. Ciao, baby!” Candace watched him swagger off into the club, looking over his shoulder for one last sneering chuckle, and then she breathed a sigh of relief when he vanished into the crowd.
Darryl Lavigne was buried in papers and musical instruments. His saxophone sat, propped up in the corner, as he plunked out a simple accompaniment to his favorite standard.
“Heaven,” he purred, “I’m in heaven…” This voice, he mused, wasn’t as grating as he used to think it was. The upper register could use a little work.
He stopped, and scratched out a few notes on some staff paper sitting on the music stand. He pondered for a moment, casting around the apartment for inspiration. The room traced a visual path through the pictures and posters on the wall, and alighted on today’s newspaper: some story about a Dr. Hamburger and his patient, Jorgensen. Brow furrowed, Darryl turned abruptly toward the piano.
Breathing slowed. Fingers found their place on the keyboard. Thoughts raced, and then focused. Here comes the hardest part of the song: the turnaround.
“When we’re out together,” hands transitioning smoothly through the chosen chords, “dancing, cheek to cheek…”
Macky sauntered over, fingering his coin, staring resolutely at his own feet. Candace straightened her spine and braced herself for whatever ‘principles’ were about to be unleashed upon her. The short, sharp man slowly raised his eyes to hers, lingering on her leather belt, and again on the top button of her shirt, then met her eyes, and heaved a slow, defeated sigh.
“This time, make sure you shine your shoes.”
Candace froze, and without another word, the old man hunched away, and disappeared onto the street.
Seeing her lover lost in victory, Delilah buried her face into the woman’s neck, nuzzling her back to the present: holding her lover’s hands, in a smoke-filled bar, just off of State street, in New York City. Delilah pulled away. “So, miss Candace Lah-veen-yay,” she cracked a crooked smile as she mimicked the American pronunciation, “Looks like you’re on your way to the Met.”
Candace smiled anxiously. “Delilah… Listen, I don’t mind the other girls, the other guys, but… well we need to talk. There need to be—well, boundaries.” The singer exhaled slowly, grimacing with dreadful apprehension.
Delilah’s face was, unsurprisingly, completely unreadable. Candace fought the urge to break away, to hit the pavement and never look back, but Delilah held fast, gripping her love by the hands. “Okay,” she ceded, “Let’s talk.” Candace collapsed into relief and joy, beaming with love.
Delilah couldn’t help but smile at her paramour’s blissful display. Slowly, she moved forward, and wrapped her arms around Candace’s waist. Delilah leaned in, and brought her lips to her lover’s ear, breathing softly: “I told you I’d catch you on the other side.”
Candace Lavigne sank into Delilah’s embrace, and swayed, dancing cheek to cheek with Her Grace. With barely a breath, she whispered back: “I knew you would.”