Sing for Me
I know something’s up when Rob gives the DeSoto’s steering wheel a sharp spin and we veer off the dark city street. There’s no intersection here, no corner to round, not even a one-way alley to barrel down the wrong way. There’s just a stretch of ramshackle sidewalk, over which Rob’s rattletrap lurches, thin, patched tires thunking against the wooden slats. And a vacant, rutted lot—we hurtle across this, too, car bottoming out, axles grinding, seat springs twanging. And a looming blackness that suddenly engulfs us like the mouth of a vast cave.
Rob brakes abruptly, and we skid to a stop.
Only now do I think to grab the dashboard and hold on tight. My heart thuds in my chest. A moment ago, we were, in a series of twists and turns, driving south. Now we’re facing east. State Street, Michigan Avenue, Lake Michigan, the invisible line of the far horizon—all are somewhere ahead, beyond my ken. From somewhere behind, from the West Side of the city (where
Mother, Dad, Andreas, and Sophy sleep in their beds, I hope and pray), something rumbles. A gathering storm.
“Are we lost? Or have you gone bananas?” I say this to Rob as calmly as I can, which is to say, not so very calmly.
My cousin doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to, what with the way he lets out a wolfish howl as the ground begins to tremble, and the car, and now I might as well start trembling, too, because it’s one of those nights. Rob’s off his rocker. Forget his promises; Rob’s promises are mostly whims. I should know this by now. I never should have climbed out my bedroom window and down the fire escape to sneak out with him. I should have been a good girl, followed the rules I’ve been taught since I could toddle, the rules I try so hard to follow.
I clap my hands over my ears at the sound that’s closing in on us now. No rumbling storm after all, nothing so tame as thunder and lightning. A metallic monster roars overhead. There’s a flash of white light, and another, shot through with blue. Fiery sparks rain down, illuminating rusted steel girders rising on either side of us, curving tracks above, grinding wheels.
Of course. I lower my hands, relieved. Not a monster. Just the elevated train. We’re parked in the El tracks’ shadow.
I should have known this, as the El passes right outside our apartment’s bathroom every hour on the hour, shaking cracked windowpanes, stirring water in the toilet. Nearly three months, we’ve lived where we live now; still the train startles me every time it rattles by. Saddens me, too. Angers me. How far my family has fallen. Whenever I consider the cold, hard fact of our perilous state, I try to remember what Mother says and says and says: “All will be well. God is with us.” I try to believe her.
I can’t believe in much of anything right now—I can’t even
think. Not with Rob howling back at the El in rage or rapture, I don’t know which. Some little thing vibrates and goes ping inside my skull. My left eardrum, maybe. I punch Rob’s shoulder.
Rob’s shoulder is plump, like the rest of him has gotten this last year since his father died and everything went wrong in his life, as he sees it. In this regard—the everything-is-wrong regard—Rob and I have a lot in common these days. All the more reason why he should have followed through on what he promised and done something right.
I give him another sock. “Be quiet!”
Rob quiets. We sit for a moment as the El rumbles away. Now I can hear the soft swish, swish of Rob’s hand, rubbing where I punched.
“That hurt, Rose.”
“You’re not the injured party here.” I let out a loud sigh of frustration. “You know what I wanted tonight, Rob. I didn’t want any hijinks. I just wanted to hear some good music. You promised.”
“It’ll be your birthday present, three weeks late,” Rob promised. (This was at the sociable after church last Sunday.) “You’ve been twenty-one for nearly a month already.” (As if I needed reminding.) “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to enjoy what the city has to offer—in moderation, of course. Everything in moderation.” Smirking, Rob dumped more sugar into his cup of coffee, and stirred it with a spoon as he stirred my wishes and dreams with his words. “Trust me, Rose. I’ll take you exactly where you want to go. Chicago is your oyster.”
I’ve never tasted oysters. I don’t desire to—just the raw thought of them makes me almost gag. But that doesn’t mean I hesitated much when Rob offered me the city on a half shell.
I told him I wanted to see Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer down on the South Side, whose voice nearly brings me to my knees when I listen to her on the radio. Mahalia Jackson’s singing is flat-out gorgeous, as deep and expansive, stormy and serene as Lake Michigan. (I’d say the ocean, but I’ve never seen the ocean.) The way Mahalia Jackson takes liberties with the likes of “Amazing Grace” and “At the Cross,” the way she sustains notes when anyone else would run out of breath—well, she leaves me breathless. I’ve seen only one picture of Mahalia Jackson and the sanctified gospel choir that sings with her, on a poster that someone tacked on a telephone pole outside the Chicago Public Library. Come Sing and Worship with Us! All Nations and Races Welcome! The words floated above their heads like a kind of halo. In their satin gowns, the choir—men and women both—glowed and shimmered like the stars I don’t see very often anymore, now that we live surrounded by so many buildings and streetlights. And with her shining smile and radiant eyes, Mahalia Jackson was the brightest star of all.
All I want to do is sing like Mahalia Jackson. I can’t, obviously. For one thing, I haven’t got her voice. My voice is its own kind of good, I’ve been told by a few dear ones who’d probably say that if I sounded like a donkey braying. But my voice is not the kind of voice that brings a person to her knees. My voice is too high and too thin; it breaks under pressure. If there was a hope on this cold, gray earth of my voice growing stronger, becoming, in its own way, really good, maybe even great . . . well, I’d have to sing, wouldn’t I? I’d have to have the time. The place. The chance. But except for the occasional offertory solo at church, there’s no hope of that. Pretty much since I graduated
from high school, I’ve either been working—cleaning apartments and houses, mostly—or tending to Sophy. I’m doing what needs to be done. Following rules, not breaking them. Keeping my family afloat, or, at the very least, helping them bale out the waters of ruin that threaten to submerge our little ark of survival.
“Tonight isn’t hijinks, Rose,” Rob says. He’s still rubbing his arm. “Tonight is living. And there’ll be some high-caliber live music, I promise.”
“You promise.” I scowl, never mind that my cousin probably can’t make out much of my face in the darkness. “We’re nowhere near Mahalia Jackson’s church, am I right? You never intended us to be, did you?”
“Who put a bee in your bonnet?”
“You did! I wish that train had stopped. I’d have gotten right on board and gone to hear her sing all by myself.”
Rob snorts. “Not half likely. You don’t know beans about the city.”
“You’re so . . . bad!” I practically spit the last word.
Rob laughs. “You wouldn’t know bad if it jumped up and bit you.”
“Don’t underestimate me.”
Rob suddenly goes serious. “I don’t underestimate you, Rose. You underestimate yourself.”
This hits me like a slap. I can’t think of what to say, which makes the bee in my bonnet buzz with even more ferocity. If I could sting Rob, I would.
“The night is young, Rose, and so are we.” My cousin’s voice drips with sultry innuendo. “And the waiting world is wanting and wanton.” Then, with a snap of his fingers: “Hey! That’s
catchy. Make that your number-one single, why don’t you. Bet your bottom dollar it’ll hit the top of the charts.”
“I don’t sing songs like that.” Through gritted teeth, I say this. “You know that, Rob. I don’t even sing, hardly.”
My cousin throws back his head and laughs harder than I’ve heard him laugh in a long time. “Tell me another one, why don’t you,” he says when his laughter finally subsides.
Forget sting. I could kill him. Not exactly the Christian thing to do. Perspiration beads on my upper lip. I run my finger under the collar of my dress. It’s mid-February, below freezing, and I’m sweating like it’s mid-July. My coat smells faintly of wet wool. A horrible, damp animal odor. I shrug off my coat and fling it in the backseat.
“Take me home, Rob. Right now. Then you can do whatever you want.”
The car’s close air stirs as Rob jerks his hand over his shoulder, a vague gesture at something I can’t see. “What I want—what you want, even if you won’t admit it—is just over there. Waiting.”
“Want schmant. I need to go home before I get caught.”
Rob bwacks and cackles. “Chicken.”
“Home.” My voice rises with desperation.
“So you can play nursemaid to your sister, housemaid to your folks, and just plain dumb to your brother? No. You are not going to spend another Friday night rotting away in that hovel you call home. I’m broadening your horizons, musical and otherwise. Consider it my good deed for the day. Heck, consider it my good deed for the year, Laerke.”
At the sound of my nickname, my fury cools a degree. Laerke in Danish means the same as lark in English: a sweet-singing songbird. Rob’s the only one who calls me that. Besides
Sophy, Rob’s the only one who really goes on about my singing anymore. Mother’s too worn out to think about such things. Andreas is too busy thinking about himself. Dad just doesn’t care—not about anything but money and Sophy. Only Sophy and Rob beg to hear my renditions of this song or that. But this or that doesn’t give either of them—especially Rob—the right to tell me what I want or need.
Again, I say it: “Home.”
Rob drums his fingers on the steering wheel and waits.
“It’s creepy here.” I add a little quaver to my voice. “We could get mugged. Or worse. You read the papers. You remember last week, in a place just like this under the El, a man was murdered. The Trib said he might have been a member of Frank Nitti’s outfit—”
“Oh, buck up! This neighborhood is safer than the one you live in.”
Rob digs for something beneath the driver’s seat. There’s a crack and the smell of sulfur. A flame flares from a long wooden match—the kind Dad uses now to light the old oven in our kitchen. As Rob grins at me through the warm glow, the buzzing bee of my fury fades away completely, and I remember why I love him so, why I love only Sophy more in this whole wide world. And it’s not just because the two of them still ask me to sing. My cousin Rob, with his round gray-green eyes, curly golden hair, and deep dimples—he knows everything there is to know about me, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and still he’s as loyal as they come. He might get me in trouble, but he’d never hurt me. Not on purpose.
Rob reaches into the backseat now, the match’s flame wavering, and retrieves a big paper bag. He shakes the bag’s contents
onto my lap. I gasp as out spills a sapphire-blue dress, the kind I never thought I’d be able to have, especially not now. In the match’s glow, I can make out the flowing butterfly sleeves, the lightly padded shoulders, the narrow waist, the long, sweeping skirt. It’s the latest style, which I’ve only seen worn by the mannequins posed in the windows of Marshall Field’s, or on models photographed for the Trib’s fashion section. The fabric is so soft and silky that it might as well be water, moving between my hands. Maybe it’s rayon, the newest sensation. I’ve never worn anything made of rayon before. And there’s a zipper running up the side. Zippers have been hard to come by these last years, now that Mother makes most of my clothes. She says sewing zippers is too much trouble.
The match sputters out. Rob strikes another against the side of the box. I lift the dress close to the soft circle of light.
“Where on earth?” I brush a sleeve against my cheek. “This must have cost a fortune.” Or what my family calls a fortune now. Five dollars at least.
Rob shrugs. He pokes at a silver satin purse lying on the seat beside me, which must have spilled out of the paper bag with the dress. “Look inside.”
I unsnap the purse’s mother-of-pearl clasp, and there, nestled in the black velvet lining, are two matching mother-of-pearl barrettes, a tube of lipstick, a pot of cream rouge, a black eyeliner pencil, and a round white cardboard box with the words Snowfire Face Powder inscribed in scrolling letters across the top.
“It was a gift set, Rose, a real good deal. I got it just before Christmas. I’ve been saving it for you ever since—for tonight.”
“But . . .” I blink. “I don’t wear makeup.”
“Right. And you don’t sing songs like that.”
“Well, as of tonight, you do, Laerke. Really, truly. No denying it.”
I bite my lip. “If Mother and Dad ever found out we were even having this discussion—”
“And my mother, and Pastor Riis, and the entire population of the Danish Baptist Church, not to mention all the Scandinavian immigrants in Chicago, fresh off the boat or the farm . . . wouldn’t you be the talk of the town then, Rose, a real scandal? Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“No. That would not be fun. That would be bad.”
“Which would be good, as far as I’m concerned.” The flame sputters out. Rob lights another match. He frowns, looking me up and down. “You can’t go out on the town resembling a missionary to the heathen. At least, not with me.”
For the first time, I take in what Rob’s wearing: a silvery gray double-breasted suit made of soft, supple wool. I’ve never seen him in a suit this nice before. The heavily padded shoulders, also the latest style, make him look a lot more muscular than he is.
He notices me noticing. “Pretty snazzy, huh?” In the flickering match light, he cocks the rearview mirror, then cranes his neck to check the knot of his tie, which is the same gray-green as his eyes.
“You look very handsome. Now please tell me how you managed to come up with these duds on a secretary’s salary.”
Rob sighs, and out goes the match. He lights another. “I’ve been saving. Working all the time like I do, you got to save for something special.”
I finger his cuff. “Still, this plus the dress—”
Rob clucks his tongue. “Stickler for details, aren’t you. Well, if you must know, I found the dress and the suit at a pawnshop. Not a big surprise, right, with so many stuffed shirts going belly up since the Crash? Anyway, who cares how I got it? It’s an investment for my future. I’m going to be one of those stuffed shirts one day and buy lots of suits like this—even better. Just you wait, I’ll be the best-dressed lawyer in town. Oh, Rose.” Rob’s voice goes soft. “I want this, see? I want to live a little.” He clears his throat and firmly says, “You will, too—especially once you’ve given it a try.”
“Last time I checked, I was alive,” I mutter. But I can’t help but think maybe Rob’s right. I’m twenty-one, for heaven’s sake. I might as well be in my sunset years, for the way I spend my nights.
“You’re alive if living is cleaning up other people’s messes and taking Sophy out for walks.” Rob confirms my thoughts, but the bee buzzes in my head again.
“You talk about Sophy like she’s a dog!”
Rob ducks his head, appropriately embarrassed. “You know what I mean, Rose, and I don’t mean that.” Gently, he takes the dress from my hands and drapes it across the backseat beside my ugly, stinky coat. “Now get changed.”
A startled laugh escapes me. “Where?”
“There.” Rob jerks his thumb at the backseat. “When you’re done, you can use the rearview mirror to doll yourself up.”
I shake my head hard. “I’m not doing any such thing.”
Rob levels a look at me. “You are doing such a thing. Or I’m telling about those songs. Your singing.”
My so-called singing. It’s what I do when I’m alone, or I think I’m alone, only to discover Rob sitting outside my window
on the fire escape, listening, his eyes wide with astonishment and delight.
I slam my fists against my thighs. Rob catches hold of my hands and stops me from doing it a second time.
“Listen, Rose. Listen to me now. I’m on your side. You know that. Tonight is only for your own good.”
“You wouldn’t tell. You promised.” My voice cracks and falters. “But promises, promises. That’s you all over, right?”
“Come out with me and have a good time.” Rob tucks a lock of my hair behind my ear. “It’s just music, Laerke, music that’s made for you. A little good music never hurt anybody. And you know, if you’d just let ’er rip and sing what you really want to sing, your voice could . . . well, who knows what might happen! You’ve just got to believe, Laerke. You’ve just got to get past the past, your fears, your family.”
“I Got Rhythm,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Songs of the world, not of the church. Songs that are wrong. These are the songs I love, in a different way than I love “Amazing Grace” and “At the Cross,” but deeply, so deeply, as deeply as Mahalia Jackson must love singing gospel. These are the worldly songs I sing that I shouldn’t, leaving Rob wide-eyed with astonishment and delight.
I want Rob to keep my secret. I want to hear some music. Most important (at least, this is what I tell myself), I don’t have another way home.
I climb into the backseat and begin to change.