THERE’S AN address over the door, but no sign, and you might have just passed by except for the bouncer sitting out front. He’s got a couple of battered crates piled in front of him, and he’s playing solitaire on them; you can hear the slap of the cards as you cross the street. It’s Cerberus at the gate; he looks like a pair of extra heads would fit fine on that thick neck. In deference to the heat, he’s wearing just an undershirt with his dark trousers and a straw boater. He doesn’t look up when you pause in front of him.
You flatten out the crumpled piece of paper in your hand and read the penciled address. It’s the same as the one over the door, but the bouncer doesn’t move, doesn’t even acknowledge your presence. You don’t blame him; you look just like all the other derelicts in town, and probably smell just as bad. Washing up in a public restroom sink doesn’t do much for the problem, and you’re wearing the same clothes you’ve had on for three days.
“Help you?” he finally asks, not looking up from his game.
You look down at the spread. He’s already fanning out the three cards for the next draw, but you say, “Black five on red six.”
Now he glances up. “Say what?”
“Five of spades. Six of hearts. Then you can open up the stack with the four of diamonds.”
“Huh,” he says, and turns back to the spread. The move opens up what looks like a nice run, but he’s polite enough to hold off on it to ask you again, “Can I help you?” The voice is less begrudging this time.
“I’m here about the job.”
He frowns, shakes his head. “No jobs here, pal. They aren’t hiring.”
Your stomach wrenches and you say, falteringly, “But Harry said….”
This time he blinks before talking. “Harry sent you? Why dincha say so?” He frowns now, seeing you for the first time, seeing the battered brogans, the worn wool of the trousers, the jacket with the patched elbow. Slowly, he says, “Go on in, I guess. If Harry sent you. Rick’s the one you gotta talk to.” He shifts just far enough out of the way for you to squeeze through; you see his nostrils flare as he catches a whiff of you, but he says nothing, just turns back to his game.
Inside the first door is a small vestibule, hot and stuffy and probably why the bouncer’s sitting outside. The door on the opposite side is dark blue velvet, padded and tufted, and in each little tuft is a rhinestone, so the door sparkles like a night sky. It’s pretty and lush and everything you don’t have anymore. But there’s a handle, and it opens, and you go inside the club.
The lights are on, and the mystique of the nightclub is by day just tables and chairs and an empty bar. Ceiling fans circle slowly overhead, putting the ghost of a breeze in the air to cool it down. But the place isn’t quite abandoned; over on the low dais of a stage is a piano, gleaming black and sleek, and a man is sitting slouched on the bench, noodling around on the keys. He’s long and lanky and, like the bouncer, is wearing a tank-style undershirt, but it’s over pinstriped slacks, and he’s got a striped tie looped and knotted loosely around his neck. He’s wearing a fedora and has an unlit cigarette stuck to his bottom lip. As you watch, he leans forward and makes a notation on the sheet music in front of him, then goes back to his noodling. Another moment, another notation, and he leans back and tilts the fedora back from his face, and you get a good look at him. He’s young, you think, and handsome; clean-shaven, the way you like, and with a face that looks like it enjoys smiling.
You make some movement, some reaction, and he notices you. One dark eyebrow lifts, and a grin spreads across the wide, mobile mouth. He takes the cigarette out and drops it in an ashtray on the piano, then says, “Didn’t see you come in.”
“I’m here about the job,” you say again. You’re feeling even less confident than you were before you stepped through the door.
The eyebrow lifts again, and he says, “The singer?”
You flush, and mutter, “Harry sent me. He said you’d give a listen. That’s all I want, is someone to listen.”
“Baby, that’s all any of us want,” the man says. He rises and slouches over toward you. You wonder if he’s capable of standing upright, then realize that he’s very tall, probably six-four or six-five—he probably slumps so he’s at eye level for normal people. You don’t think you’ve met anyone that tall before. “I’m Rick Bellevue. I own this place.”
“Nathan Pederowski,” you say. He holds out a hand for you to shake; conscious of the embedded grime in your skin, you do so gingerly. He doesn’t seem to notice, just keeps hold of your hand and tugs you toward the stage. “Let’s hear what you got. What kind of stuff you like to sing?”
“What kind of stuff do you like to hear?” you shoot back. You immediately kick yourself mentally; smartass shit isn’t going to feed you when the guy tosses you out.
But he’s laughing and saying, “Practically everything, but for now let’s stick to recent stuff. You know ‘Night and Day’?”
“Who doesn’t?” you retort. He grins again and plops down on the bench, running through the opening bars of the Cole Porter song. You listen a moment. It’s in the right key, and you close your eyes, letting the music roll you like a street kid rolling a drunk. The intro comes out like a Gregorian chant, mystical and religious, and when you swing into the first chorus it’s like bells chiming on Christmas. The song is smooth and rich as wine, and thick with hopeless longing.
Once you’re in the music, you can open your eyes, but you don’t see anything; you’re blind with love and passion. It’s as pure as a homecoming, as hot as sex; it’s everything you need and have lost and found again. You let the passion burn through you until there’s nothing left, and the notes of the song drain from you whatever has been keeping you on your feet for the last three days.
You fall back against the piano, but there’s so little left of you it doesn’t even shift; instead it holds you while you slide down the polished leg onto the floor. You sit, numb, blank, empty.
“Zeus fuck!” Rick says as he drops from the bench to kneel beside you.
“Richard,” a woman’s voice says reprovingly, and then, “when was the last time you ate, Nathan?”
“I don’t remember,” you admit. “I ate at a soup kitchen a day or two ago, but it made me sick, so I didn’t go back.” You look up but can’t see faces; things are gray around the edges and there’s a buzzing noise in your head.
Something presses against your lip, and you open obediently, like a baby bird. Sweet warmth flows in; you swallow and recognize coffee, loaded with milk and sugar. Too much sugar, it makes you gag. “Sweet,” you manage to say.
“You need sugar, and probably salt,” the woman’s voice says practically. “Richard, go have Mario make up a bowl of soup for Nathan.”
The coffee is foul, but it works; the buzzing goes away, and your vision clears. The woman is holding the cup to your mouth again, and you swallow. She puts the cup on the floor beside you and straightens, looking down on you. “Better?”
“Yes,” you respond, wiping your palms nervously on the thighs of your filthy trousers. She makes you too aware of your unwashed state. Women like her don’t need to be in the company of bums like you. You wonder why she hasn’t thrown you out already.
She brushes an invisible lock of hair back behind her ear. It’s blonde, paler than blonde, almost white, and is tucked up in a neat chignon. She’s wearing a navy suit, silk stockings, and heels, and the jewels sparkling in her ears are probably real diamonds. A class act. Beautiful, too, as you understand those things. Her face wouldn’t be out of place in a painting, and not those weird ones you saw in Paris twelve years ago. “Your singing is spectacular,” she says, her voice still that practical, matter-of-fact tone. “Why haven’t we heard of you before now?”
“I haven’t sung professionally before,” you say stiffly, knowing that it doesn’t matter how good you sing. There are other elements to performance, and both stage presence and name mean a lot. The stage presence you think you can remember from the conservatory and your lessons, but both were a long time ago. The name means nothing.
“Here, Coco,” Rick says, and sets the tray on a nearby table. He reaches down and pulls you to your feet. You stagger a little, and he slips his arm around your waist to support you. It feels so good, just the touch of a hand, an arm, an embrace, no matter how impersonal. He leads you to the table and sits you down in one of the chairs, then pulls one out for the woman. Only after she is settled does he sit down and push the tray in your direction. “Eat up.”
You glance uncertainly at the woman, not sure if it’s rude to eat in front of her.
She smiles back. “Go ahead. I’m Corinna Bellevue, by the way, Richard’s sister. I co-own this club. I’m used to people eating in my presence, believe me. Besides, Richard and I have both had lunch, and you haven’t. Richard, I would like something to drink, though.”
“That would be fine.”
He disappears, but you’re too deep in the bowl of soup to notice where. The soup is chicken, rich and thick with cream and vegetables, almost more of a stew. You try to keep from gobbling it, but the spoon doesn’t hold enough, and you can’t move fast enough to get it all down.
A basket of bread and a dish of butter pats appears beside your plate, and you pause in the soup-slurping to butter a piece of the still-warm bread. It melts in your mouth, and you let out an involuntary groan of pleasure.
“Beautiful,” Rick says behind you, and sets a coffee service on the table before pouring himself and his sister each a cup. He sets a tall glass of ice water next to you. “Mario’s a good cook.”
He could be the world’s worst cook for all you care, but he isn’t. The soup is delicious, the bread equally so. When you can breathe and think and talk again, you say so, and Rick grins in pleasure. “I’ll tell him,” he says. “Especially about the orgasmic groan.”
“Nathan,” Corinna says, ignoring his rude comment, “there are a few things we need to go over before we sign any sort of contract.”
You’ve just put a piece of chicken in your mouth; you freeze a moment, then chew it carefully, letting her words sink in. A “contract”? Does that mean you’re hired? Or is she just talking generalities? You swallow and nod.
“First of all, the Starlight Lounge is a private club. This means that no one comes through the door unless they’re a member or are an approved guest of a member. We’re careful to maintain good relations with the public and the police, but there is no advertising, no publicity. We don’t need it. Membership is carefully vetted, and potential members must be recommended by an existing member. Therefore, the club is a safe place for all kinds of people—and you will see all kinds of people here. Some of them may surprise you, but we don’t ever want our members to feel uncomfortable, so if you can’t accept people as they are, you may want to reconsider employment here.”
“I’m not in a position to judge people,” you say bitterly.
“Secondly,” she continues, nodding, “do you drink?”
You look down at your hands. The nails are filthy. “No,” you say, “not anymore.”
“Will working around alcohol present a problem?”
“No. I’m not a drunk. I don’t even like the taste of booze. I used to drink because everyone did, but I don’t miss it.” It’s true enough, as it is. You don’t tell them about drinking in Paris bars with Bertie. It doesn’t matter anyway. That was a long time ago.
“Very good. Coffee and tea are always available at the bar. This time of year we also stock lemonade, and there’s a fountain for soft drinks. The club serves food until 11:00 p.m., and is open until two. You’ll do two sets a night, from nine to ten and eleven to midnight. From twelve to two the regular band does instrumental work. You’re at liberty to continue with the band, of course, if you and they agree. Any tips outside your regular sets will be split with them. Tips during your sets are yours in their entirety. You’re entitled to dinner here, and if for any reason we need you in during the day, lunch then as well.”
“During the day?” You frown. What if you got a day job? Then you wonder: Why are you so concerned about a day job when you haven’t had one for months? All you need is enough to pay that rat bastard of a landlord so you can get your room and your traps back. The pay for two hours a night probably wouldn’t be much, but there was that promise of tips too.
“Yes. We sometimes have private parties during the day that involve entertainment, usually things like wedding showers and business luncheons. Those occasionally will involve outsiders. After six, it’s members only. But on those occasions you’ll receive overtime pay, plus your lunch. We may also occasionally require your presence at meetings or to work out some new element of the entertainment.”
“I’m a little confused,” you admit. “You’ve only heard one song. All the other auditions I’ve gone on, they’ve asked for three or four at the very least.”
“We only needed one,” Rick says. He’s been quiet during his sister’s commentary, leaning back in his chair and watching you. You’ve known that, although your surface attention has been on Corinna. His watchfulness has been a bug on the back of your neck. “The Starlight needs certain people. She knew you when you came in the door. The rest is just window dressing.”
“Ignore him,” Corinna says. “He’s fanciful. If you’d like to do a few more songs, be my guest. We’re both relatively sure that you’re what we’re looking for, but if you’d be more comfortable with our decision after you’ve shown us a little more of what you can do, then by all means. Finish your lunch first.”
A thought occurs to you. “You said ‘all kinds of people.’ Are you talking about, what—politicians? Gangsters?”
Corinna laughs. “Oh, a few of each, but not too many. We’re not connected, and it’s not worth their while for anyone to shake us down. No, the kind of people who come here are just not the kind you’ll see at other clubs around the city. Not all of them are rich, for one thing. For another thing—” She leans forward, her hands on the table. “—we don’t separate people based on their skin color or ancestry. You’ll see Negroes and Orientals and Mexicans here.”
“And queers,” Rick says with a grin. “We have queers too.”
There’s a rushing sound in your ears, and you put your head down on the table. A cool hand lights gently on the back of your neck. “It’s all right, Nathan. No one will judge you here.”
“How the hell did I end up here?” you murmur.
“Because you belong here,” Rick says.
Corinna’s fingers are slim but strong, and they knead the tension out of your neck. “Harry sent you,” she says, “because he knew we were looking for a male singer who would fit in with our clientele. Who are not the usual run of people but are still people, and who still deserve a place where they can enjoy themselves and feel safe. You’ll see mixed-race couples, and yes, homosexuals, and occasionally cripples who love the music even if they can’t dance, or can only dance awkwardly. Other places would turn them away, or only let them in to laugh at them. Starlight’s not like that.”
You don’t lift your head until you hear Rick at the piano again. He’s playing “I Surrender, Dear” and it makes you laugh even when you really want to cry. “I keep waiting for the punch line,” you say, and stand up.
And the roaring sound is back, and then, nothing.