David L. Hebert
Margot pushed open the door at the back of the lounge and stepped out into the alley.
Another show, another unappreciative audience, another few minutes of indifferent applause.
She sighed and walked through the darkness toward the street. Her worn purse hung loosely at her side, clashing wildly with the black sequined dress and high heels she was still wearing from the show. She kept a slow pace, in no hurry to get home.
There's no business like show business, she thought, shaking her head.
She reached the street and stepped out onto the sidewalk, ready to face the pimps, the prostitutes, the beggars, and the drug dealers on the route home.
The street was amazingly quiet tonight; barely anyone was about, with only the occasional figure passing by on the other side of the street. The large grey buildings loomed above her, some of the windows boarded over, all of the buildings appearing to be completely ignored.
A man in a trench coat stood across the street; he stopped and stared at her. She kept walking.
"Hey!" she heard him shout. She ignored him and continued to walk.
"Behind you! There's a guy!"
She glanced quickly over her shoulder, and saw another man approaching.
His hand was coming out of his pocket, the glint of cold steel following it. She turned around, raised one leg up into the air, and kicked him in the forehead with the heel of her shoe. He fell to the ground, a small mark dotting his forehead like the member of an Asian religion.
"You don't mess with twelve years of ballet," she said to the crumpled figure. Looking down at her shoe, she noticed the heel was cracked, and would likely fall off at any moment. "God damnit all to hell!" she swore, and took it off.
She heard footsteps and turned to see the man in the trenchcoat approaching her.
"Are you okay?" he asked, his voice soothing with sincerity.
Margot glanced down at the figure laying on the ground. "Yeah, I'm fine, but there goes my favourite pair of shoes." She looked away from the unconscious figure and smiled politely. "Thanks for warning me."
He chuckled. "Well, my dear, you certainly know how to take care of yourself."
He tucked his hands in his pockets, looking almost as out of place in this neighbourhood as she did. His grey trenchcoat showed hardly any wear, with a hint of a three-piece suit revealed at the collar. His dark hair, slicked back, reminded her of the forties and Clark Gable.
"Do you think you'll be okay?" he asked, smiling at her.
"Yeah, I'll be fine." She held up her damaged shoe. "It'll just be an uncomfortable walk home, that's all." She stuffed the shoe into her purse, shrugged, and took off the other one. "Uh...thanks again," she said.
"Hey, I'd hate to see harm fall upon a lady as lovely as yourself."
She laughed. "You're a real charmer, aren't you?" Shaking her head, she added, "I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee or something, but I'm beat. I had one hell of a night."
"That's okay," he said. As he smiled, the light from the streetlamp above cast a shadow across his face. "You just be careful on your way home."
"Will do, Boss," she said, and watched as he crossed the street and continued on his way without once looking back.
Once he had disappeared into the night, she started walking, the cracked pavement snagging little runs in her nylons. She briefly considered calling a taxi, but after she had paid the accompanyist, she had less than fifteen dollars to her name. She continued to walk the seven blocks home.
It was after two when she finally closed the door to her apartment and slid the three locks into place. Opening her purse, she took out the shoes, and tossed them into the bottom of the closet. A fog of weariness guided her movements as she grabbed a glass of water, went to her cassette player, and put on Ella Fitzgerald. A long sigh of relief escaped her lips as she stretched out on the couch, careful to avoid the third cushion where a spring tended to poke through.
As the soft horns played in the background, she thought about the Cobalt, the small lounge where she was currently performing. It was no way to achieve success. She made almost nothing there, barely enough to pay her rent, let alone eat, and she'd never make enough to record an album.
She closed her eyes, imagining her dream, picturing a concert hall filled with fans; it was a dream she had had since a child, and one in which she was quicky losing faith. Still in her dress and her torn nylons, she quietly drifted off to sleep.
* * *
Maxie's Cafe still had class, much like a beautiful woman who aged gracefully. Once the site of a notorious speakeasy, the diner had been renovated in the sixties to add vinyl seats and a formica counter. Margot sat down on one of the stools and reached across the counter, now dull and worn from too many scrubbings, to snag a bran muffin from the tray.
"'Morning, Mary," she said to the waitress, who was drying coffee cups at the sink.
"Hi, Margot. Good show last night?" The elderly woman dried each cup with efficient movements and stacked them with an ease that revealed years of experience.
Margaret chuckled. "The usual, Mary." She took a bite of the muffin and swallowed. "I'm never gonna get ahead."
Mary came over and leaned on the countertop. "Dear, all artists struggle. Hang in there. With your talent, you could blow anybody out of the water."
She turned and grabbed a container of apple juice from the cooler. "Here." She set it down in front of Margot. "Y'know, if people didn't stick to their dreams, there wouldn't be a single successful person in the world."
"Well this dreamer almost got stuck with a knife." Margot opened her apple juice and took a sip. "I got attacked last night on the way home."
Mary placed a hand over her heart. "Dear Lord, what happened?"
Margot shrugged, and told her about the warning she had received from the man across the street, and the kick she had planted in her assailant's forehead.
Mary shook her head.
"Jeez, Margot, you gotta try and get in somewhere else!"
Margot gave her a wry smile. "Who's going to hire a hold-out from the thirties?" she asked, and then stared down at the bran muffin in front of her. "I'm considering giving it all up."
Mary sighed. "I'm not a psychologist, Margot, you gotta know that. But let me tell you one thing. And this comes from years of experience. If you don't stick with what you like doing, you'll never be happy with your life."
Margot considered the statement for a moment. "But I'm not so sure if I'm happy now."
"Dearie," Mary said, reaching across the counter and taking Margot's hand, "Let me tell you one thing. If you don't follow your heart, your dreams won't follow you."
Margot smiled. "Sounds mildly profound."
"It's a line from a song I heard about a hundred years ago," Mary said, her grin creasing the wrinkles in her cheeks. "I don't remember the song, but those words have stuck with me since the first time I heard them."
Margot broke off a piece of the muffin and stuffed it in her mouth. "What was your dream, Mary?"
The old woman smiled. "Certainly not owning this place, let me tell you," she said, walking towards the back room. "But I'll show you."
She emerged a few minutes later carrying a small teddy bear and set it down in front of Margot. Margot picked it up and examined it.
"I make them," Mary said, brushing her finger over the bear's ear. "I've been making them for almost thirty years now."
"It's beautiful," Margot said, studying it closely. The seams were almost invisible.
"I used to sell them at flea markets and such. I haven't been pushing them too hard lately. But I still make them. It's what I like doing."
"That's wonderful, Mary," Margot said, running her finger along a seam of careful stitching.
"Listen, if you'll make me a promise, that you won't give up singing, I'll let you have that bear. It's the first one I ever made."
Margot looked up at her. "Mary, I couldn't! I couldn't take anything from you, especially your first bear!"
"I'm not taking it back, and you're not quitting singing," the older lady said with finality. "And remember what I said. If you don't follow your heart, your dreams won't follow you. Now get outta here."
Margot smiled, held the bear to her chest, and laid a five dollar bill on the counter. "Put that on my tab, Mary." She walked out the door before the woman could say anything else.
* * *
Margot turned the faded brass knob, pushing the door to her manager's office open enough to poke her head in.
Stan was at his desk, the phone to his ear, his grey hair dishevelled and his glasses slipping off of his nose. His gaze met hers. He nodded and she entered.
He muttered a few final words into the telephone and set it back in its cradle. "So, Doll, how are things?" He pushed up his glasses and leaned back in his chair.
She sighed and sat in the old wooden chair in front of his desk.
"As thrilling as usual. Cobalt three nights a week. Anything come in?"
He moved some papers around on his desk. "Yeah, somebody called. They want you for Carnegie Hall, but I lost the number. Besides, it'll conflict with the Cobalt."
Margot shifted in the chair. It creaked beneath her. "I know you're trying, Stan," she said, trying to ignore the sting of his sarcasm.
"Seriously, though, some Ladies group is looking for someone like you to do some event theyre planning. Willing to pay about five hundred."
Margot's eyes widened. "Five hundred?"
Stan nodded, his glasses slipping further down his nose. "I sent them a tape. I'll know by Friday."
Margot pursed her lips. "That would be incredible. Dare I hope?"
Stan shrugged. "You've got a good chance. You're talented, young, you've got the figure..."
"A figure shouldn't matter with a Ladies group."
"You never know."
She let her purse slide to the floor. "Stan, I ve been thinking of giving it up."
He let out a large sigh and sat back in his chair. Margot didn't speak.
"You've only been at this for two years," he said finally. "That's nothing ...you're what? Twenty-nine?"
"Twenty-seven. I wont be twenty-nine for two more years."
"And every year after that. Listen, you've got talent. Nobody does the stuff you do like you do it."
"Nobody does the stuff I do, period," she said.
He shook his head. "Hon, the old stuff is making a comeback. The so-called Standards are dear in the hearts of millions. We just have to wait for it to click."
She looked down at the floor. "What if it doesn't?"
"And what if it does?"
Margot swept her hair back. "I'm losing faith in myself, Stan."
"It's happened to everyone who's ever come into my office. You just have to stick with it. You'll pull through."
He picked up one of the pieces of paper from the desk. "Besides - I have more news."
She took the paper from his outstretched hand. On it was written an address and a phone number.
"A guy who owes me a favour," Stan explained. "He just started up a recording studio. It's small, but pretty high-tech. Anyway..."
She waited, but his voice had trailed off. One of Stan s games. She had to prompt him to deliver the big news.
"He's going to record your demo."
She felt a tingle of excitement start at the back of her neck, but as it crawled down her spine it became fear.
"But Stan! I cant afford this!"
"I told you he owed me a favour. This one's free. He's in on the deal if it gets signed."
She stared at him, terrified and thrilled all at once. "And I don't have a band..."
He motioned to a filing cabinet in the corner of the room. "You think I can't have one in three minutes?"
"And material. What would I record?"
He shrugged. "That's up to you. It's your baby. Just get me something I can sell," he said flippantly. "Use your imagination. Follow your heart."
His words cut through her panic. "What did you say?"
"I said get me something I can sell."
* * *
Excitement rushed through her veins as she exited the building. The slip of paper was in her purse, nestled beside the teddy bear. Traffic flowed noisily along the street, but she saw only the sunshine. Crossing the street, she walked slowly down the sidewalk, considering her conversation with Stan. Maybe she had been too quick to consider quitting...
A hand grabbed her shoulder and yanked her to the side as a courier on a bicycle sped through the spot where she had stood. She turned, astonished, and looked up at the same man who had rescued her the night before.
He was as shocked to see her as she was him.
"You again," he said with a quizzical expression.
It took Margot a few minutes to catch her breath. "I'm afraid I might quickly become indebted to you," she said with a nervous laugh.
"Hm, he said distantly, looking down the street. Then he turned back to her. "I'm sorry. What was that, my dear?"
She shook her head. "Nothing, I was just babbling."
He released her arm. "Well. Now that you seem to be okay," he began, "I--"
"I am most definitely going to buy you coffee," she insisted, taking his hand and pulling him down the sidewalk. She dropped his hand when he followed of his own will.
"I can't imagine it will do any harm," he said.
Margot held the door of Maxie's open for him and waited for him to enter. They walked to the counter and sat down just as Mary came in from the back.
"Mary," Margot said, "This is the gentleman who rescued me last night."
He modestly looked away. "I would hardly call that a rescue."
"And," she continued, "saved me from certain injury in the street just now. Which at the very least deserves a cup of your coffee, Mary. And no arguments...um..." she paused, realizing that she hadnt asked him his name.
"Call me Les," he said with a smile. "And coffee would be fine."
"Im Margot." Mary poured two cups before disappearing into the back.
Margot reached for the sugar. "I d like to thank you again for last night," she said.
He smiled and sipped his coffee. "It really was my pleasure. Although weren't you a tad overdressed for that neighbourhood?"
Margot offered him a bran muffin, which he declined. "I had just gotten off work."
He raised his eyebrows in a way that made her laugh.
"Not that kind of work! Im a singer. I was performing at the Cobalt."
"Really? I was there, once, years ago..."
She waited for him to continue, but he returned to his coffee.
"Ive been considering quitting," she said to break the silence. "Theres really not much demand for my style of music."
"Old standards. Big Band stuff. Torch songs. Anything before 1950."
He smiled. "How interesting."
"Interesting, perhaps, but in demand, no. "
He set down his cup. "Well, when one has a dream, one must pursue it. Follow your heart, so to speak."
Margots eyes narrowed. "What was that? Follow your heart?"
He smiled and shrugged. "An old expression."
"Its the third time today someone has used it."
His shoulders seemed to stiffen for a moment but then relaxed.
She nodded. "First Mary, then Stan, my manager. Mary said it was a line from a song she heard years ago."
He put the cup to his lips and quickly drained it. "Thank you, Margot, for the coffee," he said. "It has been an absolute pleasure. I really must be going. Perhaps we shall meet again."
Hearing the bell on the door, Mary emerged from the back once again.
"Your friend left?"
Margot nodded slowly. "In a real hurry, too."
Mary smiled. "He seems nice. Your age, clean cut, well-spoken..."
Margot was still nodding. "It's just..."
"He left so quickly. He used your words - that follow your heart line."
Mary shrugged. "So?"
"Its strange. Stan used those same words in his office."
Mary leaned on the counter and rested her head in her chin as she waited for Margot to collect her thoughts.
"It bothers me how comfortable I felt around him," Margot mused.
* * *
Margot had managed to push all thoughts of Les from her mind as she flipped through the albums in the used record store. Plumes of dust rose as she flipped the records in the racks; the 78 RPM section did not seem to get much browsing.
She glanced at the song titles as she flipped through them, looking for something that might trigger her imagination. She smiled as she came across an old Bing Crosby recording of "Who Threw The Overalls In Mistress Murphys Chowder". A great song, but not one she was about to put on her demo.
There was a bundle of perhaps a dozen records bound with string. The price attached said four dollars. The top one was an old Louis Armstrong, so Margot decided to splurge. Who cared what else was in there?
She went home and began to lay out her things for that nights show. But the records stayed on her mind, so she snipped the cord and put Louis aside.
The label on the second album was unreadable. Curious, she carried it to the record player and placed it on the turntable. Horns blared lightly as it began playing, and she recognized the beginning strains of "Melancholy Baby".
The man singing it had a rich, melodious voice, but she had never heard him before. The arrangement made the song sound hopeful instead of sorrowful. It made her smile as she got dressed for work. She was still humming the melody when the next song started.
The pensive piano notes caught her attention immediately, but she didn't recognize the tune. The same voice began singing as she started to apply her lipstick.
She froze when she heard the chorus.
"When a passion holds you
In the fashion that it's known to
All you have to do
Is follow your heart
And your dreams will follow you."
Shaken, she turned off the turntable, finished applying her makeup, and walked out the door.
* * *
Margot didnt sleep that night. She spent hours carefully transcribing the song, until she had both the vocals and piano accompaniment on paper.
At seven oclock she grabbed the cassette copy she had made, slipped the record into a large bag, and headed to the diner.
A few customers were eating breakfast when Margot walked in. Mary looked surprised to see her.
"You"re up awfully early," she said.
Margot smiled and shook her head.. "No, I'm up awfully late." She handed the cassette to Mary. "Play this."
Mary turned to the cassette player behind the counter. Turning off the radio, she slid the cassette in and hit the play button. The music started to play.
Marys eyes lit as she recognized it despite the scratchy sound. "My lord, youve found it!"
Margot nodded excitedly and set the bag on the counter. "I found it completely by accident. I didn't even know what it was when I bought it. And, after yesterday, I think it's the perfect song for the demo."
"Oh, I forgot to tell you," she said, and told Mary of Stan's offer.
After congratulating and hugging her, Mary said, "It's a beautiful song."
"Were going to have to worry about rights and credits though," Margot said, handing the album to her. "But I cant tell who recorded it or wrote it. Do you remember?"
Mary shook her head as she held up the album and looked at it. "We might be able to find out, though. Youd be surprised at what Bon Ami can do."
* * *
Stan said much the same thing as he squinted at the small print on the record. "Its a perfect song. Shouldnt be hard to find authorship. Weve got a manufacturer."
Margot pointed at the label. "And a last name. Price."
Stan set the album down on his desk. "Lets go with it then. Ill get somebody to look this up. You may as well go ahead and get everything ready for the cut."
Margot couldnt stop the smile spread across her face.
Oh, continued Stan. "About the ladies thing?" He positioned his glasses. "You got it."
* * *
For the first time in her history of appearing in the lounge, the applause seemed genuine.
Margot lingered behind after the performance, sitting at the piano, looking at her roughly transcribed notes as the porter ran a broom across the abandoned dance floor.
The accompanist had done a brilliant job with the piece, and the room had stood still as she sang it. The energy of the thunderous applause still exhilarated her, making her reluctant to leave the glory behind.
The bartender walked over to the piano and handed her a manilla envelope. "I forgot. Your manager sent this over," he said, and went back to the bar.
She set the envelope in her lap and tapped the beginning of the song out on the piano keys. Hearing footsteps, she turned, expecting the bartender once again. Instead she was stunned to see that it was Les.
"Im not supposed to be here," he said, leaning against the piano.
"No," Margot said, "The lounge is closed. But its okay."
He shook his head slowly. "Thats not what I meant. This didnt make any sense until tonight."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"The assignments I get are usually pretty basic, and never the same person twice. Now it all makes sense."
She stared at him, still confused.
He motioned to the envelope. "You may as well look inside."
There were two sheets in the envelope. One was a note from Stan, the other aphotocopied photograph. She read the note.
"Found the guy. Lister Price.
Sad story - recorded one album.
Woulda been big but died in a car accident the night the album was released.
Weve secured the rights.
She glanced at the photograph. Although it was grainy, she recognized the dark-haired man immediately. Standing up, she looked at Les, fighting back tears. He gave her a sad smile.
She went to embrace him, closing her eyes as she moved to kiss him, but her lips met only air.