Authors: Rebecca Rotert
For Alice Mae and (late) Wild Bill
AOMI HILL STANDS
center stage in a pool of light. Silver sequins teeter on the surface of the pale dress, her white arms rise like ribbons, palms facing the crowd as though to say,
I can hold you all
. A note comes out of herâfills the room, clean, unwavering, unendingâuntil a little vibrato appears near the end like a shiver, much the way David shivered over her in another life. Tonight is her last show at the Blue Angel and you cannot tell by looking at her just how much has gone wrong. That our life, as it was, is over. Her face says,
I know exactly what I am and what I'm good at. It's this right here
right now. My voice. And your eyes on me. There is nothing else. Not anymore
The table lanterns are turned low, all the better to hide the club's declineâmatchbooks shoved under table legs to stop the wobbling, the rotting floorboards, the dripping plumbing. It is a full house tonight. The fullest it's ever been. Smoke hangs above the crowd like a big, wide ghost. It is a room full of people. It is a room full of ghosts.
A record-company guy sits in the front. He's come to watch the redhead he saw on the cover of
magazine, and as he looks at her, he thinks she's lovelier in person, and as he listens to her, the black and gray hairs on his arms stand up. His evening had begun so disastrously with a pretty but dim blind date and now, only hours later, his luck has turned. He has found the woman who will put himâput the Canary label altogetherâon the map. Of this he is certain. The hairs on his arms are never wrong.
In a table to the side sits David, who believes he still has a shot, because no matter what happens, he always believes he has a shot. He turns a cuff link, thinks the dress makes her body look like it's been dipped in diamonds. Laura sits beside him. She is smiling because when she sees Naomi onstage, she can see all the Naomis there ever were.
The LaFontaines, their friends, and my Elizabeth take up three tables near the stage. They have never been here before, never been allowed in, and they study the old place while the rest of the crowd studies them. Rita and Sister Eye say hello to them before curtain, welcome them like friends, and sit down near the back.
All of these people are here tonightâthe friends, the family, the strangers, the loversâbecause of Jim's pictures. Because just last week, Chicago woke up to find Mother on the cover of
magazine and the whole city fell in love with her face and her struggle, which Jim has been recording, shot by shot, my whole life.
And if you look carefully, you can see the top of a girl's head peeking out from behind a curtain, red curls and a green eye, studying Naomi and studying the crowd.
That was me. It was the summer of 1965 and this was the night my mother became famous.
SEVERAL MONTHS PRIOR
OTHER IS A
singer. I live in her dark margin.
For the first ten years of my life, I watch her from the wings.
She just started working here a few months back. A club called the Blue Angel. She says it was a very important joint once upon a time. There she is taking a deep breath, arching her back, wiggling her jaw, shaking out her hands. Steve the stage manager stands at his station in front of the control board and all the backstage eyes are on him. He raises his arm, counts from five to one, and swings the air in front of him like he's whacking a fly. The guy on the pulley pulls with all his might so the tired old curtains open as smooth and slow as sheets of oil.
Jim turns the crank on his twin-lens reflex. He gives me the
lookâbushy eyebrows raisedâand I'm not even doing anything. Taking pictures is somehow Jim's job. He photographs two things as far as I can tell: one, buildings that are mostly falling down (he says that soon there won't be a single beautiful building left). And two, Mother (all he has to say about this is that he can't help it).
Mother looks at Bennett, the piano player, who closes his eyes and nods like he's saying,
you can have the candy
. She steps up to the mike. I can see the audience if I lean forward a little, but only a little. Steve made an
out of yellow tape and this is where I sit. If I want to stay here, says Steve, says Jim, says Saul,
Stay on your
When she appears onstage all the chatter and glass clanking gives over to applause. A little whistle here and there. I clap, too, because I want her to know I'm her biggest fan. Even though I know her better than anybody else.
Tonight I clap so hard I think she'll look over at me and pull me out of the wing into the spotlight and introduce me as her daughter,
whom I love more than anything
, she'll say. But she doesn't.
The lights get cranked up a little, shine off her white skin and dark red, shiny hair. She glows beneath the spotlight.
Jim opens the body of his camera and fixes a roll of film to its spool.
, she says to the crowd, as if to a neighbor dropped by for coffee. More applause. Some folks saying hello themselves. When she raises her arm, everybody settles down and waits. She breathes in, her belly against the bones of the dress, and lets out a single, clean note that says,
Let go. I've got you
She moves into the first song slowly, like she knows she might be too much for you. She lets you take your time getting used to herâthe sounds she makes, the way she movesâand she won't proceed with all she's got until she's sure you can take it.
I pull my knees up, wrap my plaid uniform skirt around my legs, and set my chin on my knees.
You don't know her
, I think.
Only I know her
Jim takes one shot after another. He smiles while he does it, like they're talking to each other, like it's just the two of them. They go way back, he says. But when I ask how they met, he just says,
It's a long story
Under her gown, Mother is standing with her legs apart like the sailor boy on the Cracker Jack box. All the dresses she chooses have to allow this position no matter how much Hilda nags.
You can wear nice-fitting gown like movie star
, Hilda always says. And every time Mother goes,
we'll have to think about that
But that's just her pretending to consider something you've said. It's one of her famous tricks.
She goes on and on, singing us through all our feelings, even old Steve with his headset half on. And though we do this several nights a week, when she rushes off the stage before the encore and waves me over with her
gesture, I feel like I've been chosen before everyone else in the clubâand maybe in the world. I run to her, hug her, my face pressed into tulle and sequins, steam coming off her like a racehorse, and she says,
She waits a second before returning to the stage, holding my hand in the wing, and says,
It just doesn't matter how small a crowd is
so long as they adore you
All night I wait for these tiny moments that are just between us.
She runs back out into the hot lights, revived enough, by me I think, for one last song.
When it's all over, Mother takes my hand and we walk to her dressing room.
How was I
, she says,
was I okay?
It was great
Oh, good. Good
But you messed up the verses on “Stairway to Paradise,”
I tell her.
You flip-flopped the third verse and the second
, says Mother.
Think anyone noticed?
I did. I'm sure Bennett did
Think I'll get fired?
And then we'll become hoboes?
Eat beans out of a can?
I like canned beans
We open the door to her dressing room. Her street clothes are laid out over the chaise.
When have you had canned beans?
, I tell her.
. She turns her back to me.
I kneel on a stool, unfasten the hook and eye at the top of the zipper, and then pull the stiff zipper down. Heat escapes. Mother takes a deep breath. The bodice's boning leaves vertical marks on her skin that angle toward her waist. She steps out of the dress and hands it to me. Then she sits down on the end of the chaise, unhooks her stockings, and rolls them down. Hilda wants her to wear panty hose but Mother says,
Stop trying to modernize me