Carolina is dancing, soft and slow, stick legs in mesh stockings, buckles on tap shoes winking in the spotlight. She shim-sham-shimmies across the floor with detached enthusiasm, breaks into a split, and grins. She turns her back and wiggles her bottom, ancient buttocks heaving in tight white shorts.
Behind her, Ray, presiding at the bass, nods, yes sir, to himself. The white pick-up drummer smiles foolishly, not knowing what to make of it. And the piano player, whose name really is Chopin, has his head down as he monotonizes the blues.
Carolina is dancing, and the people seated in the redwood-and-Day-Glo restaurant ask themselves why. They came to hear Ray and Chopin, perhaps even Lola, if they were lucky. But there she is, Carolina, stamping out time to the white boy’s uneven drumbeat, skin the same color of the black wig askew under her white top hat; pointed tips of rhinestone glasses give her demon eyes. She grins, shows missing teeth, nose and chin almost meeting in sunken face. Crazy nigger hoodoo woman. They came for Lola, Lola with her voice as strong and as rich as the young Ella’s. “Satin Doll” is her signature song and, if she has not yet quite made it her own, there is always in her voice the promise she will one day. There she is now at a table up front, cool powdered light brown face over a lace blouse, cross-legged in knee-high boots. She laughs when one of the men at the table whispers in her ear.
Carolina, almost done with her tired tent-show hoochie-koo, extends one leg, rippling mundane thigh muscles. Someone whistles and her grin comes of its own accord. Lola laughs again and holds out another cigarette. The same man lights it immediately.
The drummer scatters one last careless roll and sounds the cymbal; Chopin’s chords are empty echoes. Carolina hangs her head and genial Ray grabs the microphone: “Carolina, la-dies and gentlemen. The inimitable Miss Carolina.”
There is tepid applause, like the shank of night and a cigarette at the bottom of a cup of abandoned coffee. Carolina bows, straightens, taking off the white top hat. She sets it on Lola’s table.
“One more,” she says. “One more song. And don’t none of y’all be shy about comin’ up to put sumpin’ in this.”
The band begins without her, and she turns, stamping her foot until they fall in, letting them go on until she is sure they have gotten it. She holds the microphone close to weathered lips, rubbing the words against her raspy voice. She sings:
Give you anything you want babe,
Just so long you comin’ back to me.
She sings the lines again, and then:
Take all the money out my pocket,
’N give you all the clothes off my back.
“Not much texture,” Lola says, and the man beside her nods.
If Carolina hears, she goes on despite the words. They are not important, and who gives a damn about texture anyway? Once, she sings, in the back room of a blind pig in Galveston, I made a big buck from Shrevesport lay down his straight razor. There was an American flag embedded in its mother-of-pearl handle, and he began to cry for his momma. I made the thunder roll and the lightning flash. I stole the gold teeth from the open mouth of a sleeping high-yellow undertaker because he would not leave his wife. My heart was young and foolish but, for a little while, I rode the wind.
The man beside her leans closer, but Lola pulls away. Chopin takes a solo, eyes closed now, face shiny with sweat agony. The chords are whorehouse laughter, as ornate as the pattern on a gambler’s vest. Someone gets up to put a dollar in Carolina’s hat. Others follow. Ray plays what he has always known. Carolina sings:
Men, you better love your woman,
Cause you hate to see her go.
Men, you better love your woman,
’Cause you hate to see her go.
And when you do mistreat her,
You know it’s bound to show.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Ray says, shaking his head, and even the drummer seems to have it now. The band finishes and Carolina takes one last bow, leaves taking the hat full of bills. And before she goes, in acknowledgment or propitiation, Lola too takes a bill from the table and puts it in the hat.
—From Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City (Paycock Press, June 2015); republished here with author’s permission
A former editor and book reviewer for The Washington Post Book World, David Nicholson was the founding editor of the magazine Black Film Review. He has worked as a journalist for the Dayton Daily News (Ohio) and the San Francisco and Milwaukee bureaus of the Associated Press.
He is a graduate of the University of the District of Columbia, holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Vienna, Virginia; where he is at work on a biography of A.M.E. Bishop William David Chappelle and a family history/memoir, The Simonses of S Street: The Story of an American Family.