El stands under muted chrome lights, legs splayed apart and left hip cocked out like the jagged end of a lipstick smear. The soft undercurrent of voices drifts from the club crowd up to the stage, quiet murmured conversations below the chink of glasses and clicks of the mike stand slotting into place. If she listens close enough she can almost hear the bare echoes of a young man's laugh, a woman's soft tinkling sigh, the swell of a family's conversation.
"All ready," the man before her grunts around the toothpick hanging out the corner of his sun-cracked mouth. El reaches a hand over to tug at the length of color-faded silk knotted around her left wrist, stepping forward to take the place he vacates. The same hand rises to wrap around the cold silver shaft, glossed lips parting as she ghosts them towards the microphone.
The crowd has dropped in volume, calm falling over the haphazardly arranged three-legged stools and half-rickety tables. It's a quiet she's felt many times, countless times, slotting into the places between attention and anticipation. One that she's lived by and in and for. But tonight is different, just like all the nights before it. Because no matter how long it's been she'll never really get used to this stage, never go quite as far as to take anything for granted.
A steady bass starts up, smooth tones of the keyboard falling in with a slow blues, and lids slip shut over chestnut eyes as a velvety voice joins the fray.
Elinor Chaffer was born in the winter of 1933, daughter of the widowed owner-by-default of the Second Street Club. The club's founder, Theodore Chaffer, had been a widower himself, an ex-soldier settled in Louisiana with a four year-old son and his own New Orleans jazz club when he married Stacey Waites several years after the end of the Great War. When he succumbed to his old wounds half a decade later, Stacey Chaffer spent three months in mourning before promptly declaring a fresh start and leaving for the West with her stepson. Little Hank was nine at the time, too young to deny otherwise when she returned barely a year later, an infant in her arms but no new name, claiming to have been left pregnant before Ted's death.
Hank had taken both well and quickly to his new half-sister, who quickly became a staple among the club staff. Ellie spent her early years in the dusty spaces of the backstage, half helping the crew at her own insistence and half being a small bundle to trip and stumble over, all laughing eyes and brown hair held back by her favorite purple ribbon gifted one year by the kind manager.
Stacey, on the other hand, had not been treated well by the years, more commonly found at the bar than in the director's seat. She was the official name in the legalities courtesy of her late husband, a fact which no one had gotten around to correcting even during her thirteen month absence, though it was Jeremy the manager who had long played the part of the sole proprietor in practicality if not on paper. She loved her children both, unconditionally so despite the lack of blood relation to one, promising herself every day to be never less than a good mother. Her drug of choice was the drink. Not the really strong stuff, but she had a particular fondness for cocktails which showed some nights after the kids had disappeared into their closet-bedrooms on the living story above the dance floor. She had her own room up there, along with a kitchen and lounge space; it made really quite nice an apartment despite the slight squeeze, even if it only got use the times she didn't pass out on one of the backroom couches after the lights went down. The cleaning crew had become accustomed to it. The establishment wasn't quite anything that could be called 'sleazy,' but music clubs were never the height of cultural refinement. Things worked even if they weren't ideal, a father stolen away by a decades-old bullet, a mother half-living in a bottle, children raised in a playground of amplifiers and yellowing sheets and whirlwinds of revelry in the darkness of each night. Things were good. But things changed; they always did.
Ellie was sixteen when she decided it wasn't enough. Hank, ten years her senior, had long taken his own place at the sound-desk and made himself do with a step-mother who cared for her charges but not herself. It wasn't some act of nobility, trying to 'save someone from themselves' or any fantasy like that, but unlike her brother Ellie saw through the crystal-rippled surface. She wasn't the kind of girl that could be satisfied with something less than real, a happy facade as long as the little one was up then out trying to escape as soon as she was down. It wasn't the alcohol or the hangovers, it was the lie.
"know I love you two, Ellie. You kids are all I have."
"And the club."
"Yea, and the damn club," the middle aged woman slurred, the last word rounding off with a snicker. Ellie set down her tray of glasses on the bar.
"Come on, let's get you up to bed. You have a lunch tomorrow."
Stacey hiccupped as her daughter lifted her to her feet, zig-zagging between the last few straggling patrons. It was latepushing early, reallyand the waitressing shifts that Ellie had picked up when she turned eighteen were long enough today that Stacey had hit the bar half-way through.
They climbed the narrow stairs like a lumbering four-legged creature, the taller half tumbling onto the unmade mattress as soon as they stumbled into the master bedroom. "Night, Stace." They'd never really gotten the hang of the word 'mom.' Stacey just gave another sweet-stenched hiccup.
"Shit, El. Disappointed in your ma?"
Ellie let out a sigh. "You don't have to hide, Stacey, not from us." She'd seen enough peopleperformers and customers alikewho came to lose themselves in the night-life, too many to be bothered by it by now even if they were one of the more respectable places.
Stacey snorted. "You're not like Hank, you know? Never tried asking me why I'm so goddamn broken."
"You're not broken, you're... No one's perfect." She leaned over to press a kiss against the graying hairline then reached up to wipe off the blood-colored stain left behind. "But you're still our ma."
"Prouda me, are ya?" Another snort, but different now. The giddy high had leaked away, loopy grin falling from the older woman's face. "Shit, El, you're nineteen, ya still don't get it. Betcha wouldn't be so proud if you knew. You're not Hanky's sister."
"Yea, that's right. Dun believed they bought that left-pregnant crap. Nah, I met a fella in Utah and you know what else?" This laugh was cruel, deprecating, razor-sharp peals falling from a sneering mouth. "He was a nigga! Howzat for ya? Ma fucked a nigga, and didn't even remember the rubbers!" And with a last hacking laugh, Stacey Chaffer passed out.
It was no surprise that the owner of Second Street was what she was in name only, with her somewhat worryingly regular habit of waking up with the entire previous might wiped from her mind. She joked about it sometimes, calling it her survival instinct, making room for better memories. It had ceased to be unsettling for her to mentally stumble across a few hours that she couldn't for the life of her remember.
But Ellie remembered. How could she not.
There was a man leaning against the counter, grease-slicked blonde hair pulled back from his cool blue eyes. He muttered a few words to the bartender before turning to flash a grin at Ellie, who hesitated for a moment before smiling back.
There had been some surprise the first time she ordered herself a drink in between serving the tables. She caught a couple of exchanged glances, though Jeremy was the only one brave enough to ask her about it.
"Something the matter, girl?"
"Just learned something, is all."
It had been four months since she'd found out the truth, four months during which the seat with Ellie's name on it had gradually moved from the artist's spot backstage to one of the grimy corner tables on the floor. Nothing had changed, not really. Sometimes when the night was late and the door was locked, Ellie would stand in front of the mirror and pull her dark bangs back from her tanned skin, so far from Stacey's light and pale but nothing she'd ever given a second thought to before, almost swearing that it was screaming the truth to everyone she passed. I'm not white. But no, no one knew better, except her. I'm not white.
The man was moving closer now, and Ellie felt a small smile curl her lips as she saw he was holding two glasses. He looked a few years older than her, but no more than that, deep set eyebrows and a slightly hooked nose over an otherwise classically handsome face. Ellie took three seconds to reach out and close her fingers around the offered stem as she thought, 'why not?'
It hurt. She'd heard that it always did the first time. But there was something thrilling, addictive, in that visceral realness of the dull pain and the slick drag of skin against skin. He sat back afterwards against the chipped headboard of the filthy motel bed, pulling out a home-rolled cigarette from the pocket of his dropped pants as she lounged on her side.
"Sure," she said lazily. "I'm already a spade. What's a little more shit."
She spat out her first drag, almost hacking up a lung, then finished the whole roll.
They were disappointed in her, she knew even if they didn't say. No one looked at a girl the same way after something like that. But it wasn't until Hank cornered her in her room one morning that she heard about the other rumors.
"Ellie, there's been talk."
"There's always talk."
"That man, thatlover of yours" she sneered at the word "he mentioned something, something that you said, about being"
"You got a point or what?" she snapped, cutting in before he could say it.
"Just, be careful, Ellie. You're not alone, you know. You're always my little sister."
She waited until he left before letting out a bark of cold laughter.
It took ten months for them to send her away. Really, Ellie was surprised it wasn't two. The cover was all fine, an old friend of Stacey's whose brother needed a secretary. They said it was because they wanted something better for her, even Hank urged her to do something more and leave when he didn't, but there was always that undercurrent whispering, 'you know why, you know why they want to get rid of you.'
She packed what she needed, not bothering with the little memories or remnants of her long-left childhood. Her false brother walked her to the station along with Jeremy, who had always seemed to think that babysitting was part of his manager duties. Then it was just a slightly stiff hug and a peck on the cheek from Hank before she was off.
Her employer, Arnold Beckett, was an amiable man, friendly if not for his tendency to treat her more like a colorful ornament than an employee. The work was acceptable, days spent as a helping hand with papers or a perky disembodied voice on the end of a phone line. Every week or so she would forward an invitation to her boss for some function or other, and after the first few he began inviting her along as his datea convenient pretty girl to appear on his arm, if only they knew the truth.
No one called her 'Ellie' anymore. She was El, just El, twenty-one, office-girl. Mister Beckett helped her find a small apartment with her earnings, and she made do with her own cooking. There wasn't much time for herself, though she got friendly enough with some of the women from the next department and a pair of brothers in her building. It was good, she was happy. At least that's what she told herself in the chilly hours when she slipped out for a smoke.
El spent Christmas with Stacey and Hank and Second Street, but things weren't quite the same. They said she was moving up, but she knew she just didn't belong. It was her third holiday back when Hank caught her with a Winston in the alley behind the club.
"How long have you been smoking?"
"'Bout three years."
"Jesus," he said.
She took a last inhale then dropped the butt to the ground and crushed it under a gaudy leather boot. "Something wrong?"
"What do you think?"
She didn't reply, reaching into her purse and pulling out the half-empty packet. "Want one?" Hank ignored her. El shrugged and lit another for herself.
"I hate seeing you like this."
"Yeah, yeah," she scowled, "seeing me. Fuck everything, as long as you don't see it."
"Dammit, you know that's not what I meant. You're my sister, Ellie-"
She cut in with a scoff. "Really, Hank, I always thought you might be dim, but haven't you figured it out? Didn't you even pay attention to the broad dragging around half the States?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"They were right, those fucking years ago. Stace got herself wrapped up in a sooty, got herself fucking knocked up with a tar baby. Don't even know what my name should be, but whatever it is it isn't Chaffer." She dropped her second cigarette, only half smoked, not even bothering to stomp it out before she pushed past to get inside. "I'm not your sister, Hank. Ellie Chaffer is goddamn lie."
El didn't give Beckett a chance to protest when she told him she was leaving, barely an hour off the train, dropping the keys off at her landlord's doorstep and checking into a motel with her savings. She spent the first few weeks living off the corner deli, and the next few off packet meals. When the money finally ran dry, she checked out, caught the bus to the next city, and asked around for the nearest club.
"What do you do?" the manager said, leering at her with a drag of his eyes over the length of her body. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes before answering:
"I can sing."
The first time she visited home was five months after she left, three nights after her second performance and first envelope of cash. It wasn't nostalgia, she swore. No one said much, Stacey made an attempt to mix her a cocktail and Hank offered her a seat backstage. El could almost feel the words in the air. Ape. Nigra. Never directed at her yet, but she'd seen and heard enough slammed doors, spat out insults, stories of the lynchings that came after. It was the first time she'd been in a room full of people who knew. They were disappointed. Always disappointed.
She had a career now. Some part of her family, of Second Street, of herself even, half-expected El to be a streetwalker, or maybe landed in the pen. She was never the brightest, Hank had already finished by the time she started school and she'd dropped out in sophomore year, but she hadn't quite sunk that low. Though she was never above getting invited into a strange bed the times she couldn't quite scrape together enough for a room. El had a pace for herself, continuing, displacing, leaving behind a trail from state to state of empty glasses and soggy cigarette ends. She'd been offered the harder stuff from time to time and she'd given them a try, still took a joint if was handed to her, but she had learned to crank herself away from the fog, the haze, the shedding of reality.
She was in one of the more backwater dens one evening, passing through, one of the few places willing to pick someone up for just a few nights for a little spice. Her set was late and it was almost empty as she sat at the beer-slicked bar with a cigar thrown at her by an enthusiastic, or maybe just very drunk, crowd member. She was close to calling it a night when there was a rustle of thick clothing by her elbow. A woman sat down on the stool beside her, dressed in something that would have rather outrageously offended the sensibilities of some of the better audiences she sang to.
"Enjoyed your performance tonight," she said.
"Hm," El replied.
"Nice to see a girl on the stage with her clothes on."
"No, not really."
El frowned as she turned, looking up into black-lined eyes and smirking crimson lips against a heavily powdered face. "So what's your name, then?"
"Missy. Missy Lorrane."
"Chaffer, huh. Father's or husband's?"
El didn't let the smile flicker on the other woman's face. "What about you? Got a Mister Lorrane?"
"Nah, no man for me. Not really my thing." She leaned closer, the curve of her body against the counter emphasizing the swell of the bust that was almost bursting out from the front of her sequined dress. El paused for several seconds before, 'oh.'
"Would you like a drink?" she asked as she thought, 'why not?'
El never quite managed to stay away from Second Street. Visits weren't regular, but they happened. Sometimes she talked, sometimes they talked, and sometimes she stood on the sidewalk out front in the early hours of a morning without talking at all. There were times she stayed for a few weeks, even a few months, but then there always came the morning when they woke to find her gone again without a word. Her old room had long been given to Jeremy as an office; El took up residence in one of the backrooms, or at least the nights that she slept.
She spent a few months in New York as the mistress of a retail magnate. It wasn't the wife that made her leave, and things he said about El when he thought she wasn't listening just made her raise her eyebrows. It was the complacency, the realization that she almost had the easy life at her fingertips. She gathered up her things, all necessities and nothing personal, and disappeared across the border into Vermont, back to the motels and midnight gigs. El wasn't one for high society. Or just, society, really.
Her mother passed away in the fall of 1961, natural causes, and El felt. That was all it really could be described as. She froze up when she got the letter from Hank, sent to a post box she kept in Atlanta that she wasn't sure how he knew about. She rented an auto and made the drive, waiting the whole eight hours before she snapped and screamed at her once-brother. She didn't cry.
Some part of her felt it could be relieved, as if her secret has somehow died too. Some part of her was relieved she had an excuse to let go all that had been mashed together and shoved under the glitter-stained blanket over the long years.
"Stay," Hank said, "stay home this time." But it wasn't home, hadn't been for a long time. There was no need to agonize over too-good or not-good-enough, the simple fact was that she wasn't Stacey Chaffer's little girl anymore. El told him so in a whisper, as if afraid someone might overhear, too much had changed and would never change back. It was the first real conversation they'd had in years.
She stopped at the first bar out of the city, not for a job, just to toss a few down her throat and feel the burn. She picked up a girl, a young one, but El barely noticed as she fucked her back in the unfamiliar apartment, ragged nails drawing red lines over softly bronzed back and breasts. She turned to El afterwards, lips swollen and voice languid;
"That was my first time with a woman."
"Think it's going to be your last?" Looking over the ripped-out hairdo, smeared make-up, and almost dazed gaze, El lit a cigarette and didn't have to listen to know her reply.
Women weren't like men. They were different, and not just in the obvious. It wasn't a case of morals or decency, it was one more freedom from convention, expectation. For the love of hell, El couldn't remember the girl's name afterwards.
She ended up staying another night, going home with a man old enough to be her father. If only.
Time passed, things moved on, El was no youth anymore at thirty years of living. Down in Washington a man named King had a dream, and over the next few years race equality and anti-discrimination laws started popping through congress. But they were just pieces of paper. Words. They didn't really change anything, not now. In the whirlwind of bright lights and cheap liquor of El's passing years, somewhere between the last motel and the next stranger's bed, things had slowly dawned on her. It wasn't just about the spook who was her father. It was about independencenot the sort of waffle that the women's rights movement spewedabout shaping herself, making something real from a frightened mother's half-baked story.
She married a blackjack dealer in Vegas after getting herself a semi-permanent seasonal job. Not a bout of drunken stupidity, they knew each other for almost a month before falling into the chapel together. He told her his name was Steve Decker, which made her snicker the first time she heard it. El liked him, she really did. It wasn't love, not the kind they waxed about in poetry and movie-houses, but it was good. It worked. He didn't care when she disappeared for weeks on end and she pretended not to notice the girls sneaking around their apartment, a different one every month or so.
It took until the second time she visited as El Decker for her to forget to take off her four dollar ring, only slapped on two nights before for some celebration or other at Steve's insistence. She was avoiding the front entrance, coming in from the back when Hank met her.
And there it was, a flash of another scene in the same alley, last lifetime. El almost laughed as she parroted herself, "About three years."
She snorted. "What do you think?"
"No need to start lecturing, Hank. We're good."
"Who is he?" He leaned against the doorway, cutting her off.
"Works a casino in Vegas. Same one as meno, not like that. On the stage. Behind the microphone."
"He good to you?"
"Jeez, what's with the interrogation?"
"Because I know you don't have to do this!" Fists clenched, a forearm pounding at the wall in frustration, years of it. "You're not a girl anymore. You can make yourself better."
"By doing what? Keep stringing along a fantasy?"
"Is that worse?"
He grabbed at her, fingers tightening painfully around El's left wrist. She let a vicious sneer curl her mouth as she spat back, "Fuck you, Hank. Think you know better? Because I can't fucking look after myself?"
There was a split-second, then Hank was letting go and stepping back, pushing her away. "No. Because I love you. Because you're my sister."
El was just returning from a trip to the coast when the news arrived. She'd finally decided she wanted to see the ocean, hubby didn't so she went anyway. The letter from the lawyer was sitting on the table.
Steve didn't come, just handed her the auto keys and pressed a kiss to her cheek, saying that he'd drop by maybe if he was ever in the area. Somehow, it was already goodbye.
The Second Street staff, new faces that had all changed and changed again over the years that she'd never bothered to familiarize herself with, told her the story. Henry Chaffer left on vacation barely two weeks after she'd stormed away from him in that alley, and never came back. Most of them, including the paper-pushers, assumed he'd been killed in some accident. El let herself entertain the thought that he'd run, maybe shocked out by something of his own, followed in her footsteps, though really that was just about the same thing.
The only constant was Jeremy, still loyal as ever, now grayed at the temples with twice the lines on his face as when El had left. He let her into her old room when she asked, not even sure herself why. The bed was gone, of course. Almost everything had been replaced. The only thing familiar was the small wooden chest of drawers which had served as her bedside, shunted off into a corner and covered with twice as much dust as the rest.
The first drawer was filled with papers, shoved in every which way. The second had a small pile of junk, from around the room apparently, buttons and pins and the like. El levered out the third draw, and, 'oh.'
It was almost empty. The cheap pine was completely bare except for a single strip of faded violet, the ribbon she'd thought thrown out with the trash long ago. She picked it up, held it, and for the first time in over a decade, she let herself cry. For a past long gone, and a brother she loved despite everything for trying to keep alive a girl who no longer existed.
"You know, they say purple goes well with dark skin."
She broke off, forcing herself to look up through wet-beaded lashes.
"I knew, Ellie," Jeremy continued softly. "Stacey, she I've always known."
And that was really all that needed to be said.
"You'll stay. Won't you, El?"
El took a moment to dry her eyes, then reached down and tied the ribbon around her skinny arm like a bracelet, too tightly to ever easily take off. They both knew the answer.
It seemed they still hadn't learned after that first time. Much like her errant mother's, El's name was never taken off the club's deed. The legalities took a few months, change of ownership, and divorce. She finally did the due and passed the club fully to Jeremy, giving him the title he'd deserved so many times over. Moving into Hank's old room took almost as long.
When the last of the paperwork was signed and sealed, one of lawyers pulled out a packet of smokes and held it out to her, "to celebrate." She stared at them for several seconds before replying, "I'm good for now, thanks."
The first night El performed at Second Street was like finishing a long-neglected puzzle, pieces falling not into place but to make a new picture, hidden behind the one on the box. And there, it didn't matter. Because when she sang to an audience that had waited for her for fourteen years, it wasn't about what face she put up. It was music, art, pure expression, and it was real.
She didn't regret, not really, because she'd done it. Shaped herself. Even if it wasn't beautiful, it was what made her. She was El Chaffer, ribbon around her wrist not out of sorrow but as a guide, a marker, a reminder. Maybe it wasn't home, but before the lights she knew and tables she'd served and crowd that was hers, it was the closest she would ever get.