Monday, November 11, 2013

#105: "Calling Up Billie" by Susan Starr Richards


~This story first appeared in Brilliant Corners, A Journal of Jazz & Literature (2004).


            That carefully breathy voice speaking out of my phone in the middle of the night, conjuring up my whole lost world—the late-night city world I left behind.
            “Are you sitting down?” the voice asks me.
            I’m lying down, in the bed. It’s 3 a.m. I live in the country now.
            But I’m wide awake, suddenly. “Why? What’s happened, Jo?” I ask.
            A pause. “This isn’t Jo. This is her sister,” the voice says.
            But it’s still Jo’s voice I hear. A voice that knows just how to let itself drop at the end of a phrase—the end of a moment—the end of a set. That music has a dying fall. So does the voice.
            And now that same voice—it says it is her sister—is telling me Jo had a dying fall, herself. Out the window of her apartment, fourteen stories down. What’s wrong with this conversation? Everything. How can someone who killed herself be telling me so on the phone?
            “I thought you’d want to know,” the voice says, before it drops back into the dark. “Since you were such good friends.”



            Jo down here in Kentucky on a visit, sitting back against my rough-wood wall, under the ropes of garlic and baskets of tomatoes. Talking to me about reading Baudelaire. "And then I figured out...everything's not going to be all right. I always thought things were bad but they'd get better. But from that I learned everything wasn't going to be all right." The smooth, knowing voice. But her brown gaze is wide and inward, still surprised.
            Her face like my face, a child’s face growing old. Marks around the eyes and mouth, as if to call attention to them. Still shiny brown hair, still glowing tan skin, still a round face, a girl's face. But the voice is careful oh yes. The voice of someone who learned to talk again when she was—eighteen? Thirteen? How early? A New York voice going south. Going black. Going out.
            The last time she was down, she didn't get out of bed. A bad cold she said. I made her some chicken soup, but that wasn't what she was looking for. She got her New York doctor to call a prescription down for her, and got me to pick it up. Not a snorter's paradise around here, but you can get pills at any small-town drugstore.
            Overdose, yes. Easy enough to imagine—no not easy none of it's easy. Stepping out the window? Imaginable? Vertigo, the wanting to be down there, where it all is. Where you aren't.
            She always used to call this time of night. It wasn't late, of course, by her standards. They close things down in her world at 3 or 4. Here I go to bed at 11. The voices from my stereo are the only ones that speak here late at night. And then the phone calls from Jo. Telling me about a man. Telling me about her book. Telling me about Billie.
            In the corner there she stands Billie with her white gardenia. Gardenia that most fragile flower that fills every corner with its heavy scent and turns brown when you touch it. Jo trying to turn brown at the other end of things. A black lover last I heard, old tenor player. Jo met him when she was doing research for her book on Billie.
            All the quiet studious types loving Billie so. My goodness. How come?
            “If I should take a notion to jump right in the ocean—“ But the street ain't the ocean. No big soft waves there. Just heat up off the downtown traffic.
            Maybe her book really did kill Jo. I'm always thinking this book will kill me, but maybe that one sort of did kill her. She couldn't get herself to write it. She got lost in it instead, in Billie's life. And Billie was dead, of course, all the time. But her voice was still there.
            Billie's mouth is open, on the blow-up of the album cover I've got tacked up over my stereo. Glossy she looks, brown and lovely and glossy—soft, those great black eyes. That little piece of her on film, so young-looking, so untouched, like the gardenia. That was the strange part. How could she have been that? Given the life she'd already had? Still there it is, you can see it in her eyes. Innocence is a hard thing to lose. Even when the world is ripping it out of you.
            “The Pain...the Pain.” That was what Jo always said when she talked about Billie. I never knew what to say when Jo said that. I couldn't get hold of what she meant. When Billie sang about pain, it didn't sound like it began with a capital letter.
            In the notes for her book Jo had Billie's grocery list. Tomato paste, Billie bought. Now that I understand. I can get hold of tomato paste.
            What is it that still gets hold of us all in that voice that never says things the same way? Saying the same thing a lot, the pain, right, the pain, but some other things off and on. “Give me a pig foot and a bottle of beer, and groove me 'cause I'm in my sin.” Words broken into bits, accents rearranged, till the whole language becomes suggestive, a language of sensuality, irony, despair, and something beyond all that, something to play with, pure playing with the sounds and then with all the things they're supposed to mean—with the men, with the pain, with the life they're supposed to make sense of. It's like kids talk to themselves as they play by themselves when they're still small and don't know all the things you're supposed to say and that it's all supposed to mean what everybody says it means.
            You could pretend to be Billie like people used to pretend to be Princess Anastasia. The Black Queen, singing for her supper, that thick creamy voice picking its way through all kinds of shadows and finally hitting the sun.
            I'm having a hard time buying this story. Can a not-so-young Jewish girl from Brooklyn find unhappiness as a famous deceased black jazz singer? How about a not-so-young Presbyterian girl from Kentucky?
            Ah but I gave all that up. The city, the bars, the hip talk, the black eye liner. The cigarettes in the middle of the night. All I got left are the records.
            No CD's for Billie and me. I like the background noise on my old LP's, that waiting sound at the beginning, opening up spaces in my mind, like the hiss of the far-off sea. Just right for a siren to sing out of.

            Do I have to give it all up, now? Giving up Billie, is that what this is about? I haven't played my records for a month. Tonight I get one out and play it, it's been long enough, I think. A decent interval. “You don't know...what love is...until you know the meaning of the blues,” Billie says, her voice catching at the words, giving them that little hard twist as she lets them go. And tonight I get another phone call when I'm asleep, lost in the back of my dreams already.
            I have been specially selected, it seems, by the voice at the other end. She wants me to come up there and go through Jo's notes. She wants me to finish the book on Billie.
            Just what I always needed, I say to myself. A ghost writer. But this one wants me to write her book.
            "I still can't believe it," I say to the voice. "I still just can't believe it." And I can't. This voice sounds so much like Jo. I keep thinking it is Jo, speaking to me live from New York City, trying to make me believe she's dead. Why would she do this to me?
            "Believe it," the voice says, all breathy and falling. "It was a big funeral. There were lots of people there." Counting the house.
            "Name one," I want to say. I'd like a second opinion.
            I never even knew Jo had a sister.
            Of course, that doesn't mean she didn't have one.
            She never talked about her family. Most of the things women talk about Jo never talked about—family, friends, how she grew up. She talked jazz. She made jazz into her future and her past. The men were all mixed up with the jazz, finally—I'm not sure she could ever tell them apart.
            The last man, the tenor player, was the one she said introduced her to coke. "It's so...civilized," she told me. But civilization was so expensive. She was thinking of declaring bankruptcy last time she was down here. And why not? As she said, her only assets were her notes for the book on Billie, and who would want those?
            "It seems all wrong," I say to the voice. "I mean—it's her book, right?"
            A collaboration, the voice says. "Isn't that what you call it?" That may be what she calls it. I don't know what I call it. I feel like I'm already collaborating, just talking on the phone to whoever or whatever may be at the other end of it. A creative connection we already got.
            Or are we both collaborating with Billie? Isn't she the one who's done this, got me up late at night, her voice in my ear, with fanfares, horns, cymbals, shh-bump shh-bump on the drum? "Ladies and Gentlemen—The Great Lady Day—Miss Billie Holiday!"
            "A colored woman, not a colored lady,” my father says, correcting me firmly, kindly. "A colored woman is not a lady."
            "What? Why not?" I ask, amazed, staring. We’re crossing the railroad tracks. That colored woman sure looked like a lady to me.
            "Just like you never call them ma'am or sir," my father says.
            Racism for Beginners: two wrongs do make a right. And we’ve got rules for how to be cruel.
            But I was hopeless, even at the age of seven. I couldn't stop saying colored lady. I called all grownups ma'am or sir. If I'd ever actually met Billie, I'd have called her Miss Holiday ma'am, you can bet on that. It was from Jo I learned to call her Billie.
            Still, we're all cool together now. All of us lady-women. Billie and Jo are dead cool. Me and the sister are the live ones.
            Or maybe I'm the live one.
            One time when Jo was down to visit, she actually did work on her book. She sat in my living room, that is, and typed furiously on her old Olivetti, while I worked in the kitchen. She talked to herself, a funny voice, excited, argumentative. I talk to myself when I'm working, who doesn't? But there was something weird about Jo doing it, with me right there in the next room. Sometimes I had the crazy feeling she was just playing the keyboard, like kids play the piano when they don't know how, crashing their fingers down and expecting music to come out, and if I went in and looked at what she was typing it would say tieufmbe947thgld;s’anbf. "I'm sorry, but I have to do this,” she called out to me once, brightly.
            Do I have to do this? Collaborate? With someone who may or may not be a ghost?
            "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a request to sing a tyune," Billie says, sweet and breezy, on that album made in Hamburg. To that whistling stomping screaming crowd. Totally uncool, those Germans.
            Very cool, Jo was, that night I left Ted. Tough and cool. She helped me move my stuff up to her apartment, put a stack of hot jazz on the stereo, and we drank and danced around all night and had a properly abandoned time. She never said a word, never tried to tell me I was (at last! finally! thank God!) doing the right thing. Only, before we left my place, she took this styrofoam cube my mother-in-law had given us, with our wedding pictures laminated on it, and put it in the freezer. "Don't take it out, now," she told me seriously.
            But I did. I snuck back up and took it out. I couldn't stand the thought of Ted finding it there. Just like I left him the checkbook, because I couldn't stand the thought of leaving him broke. Of course when I got the checkbook back, he’d cleaned out the account. It was all money I'd made, and all the money we had. But he said he'd had a lot of dental bills to pay.    “If I give him my last nickel / And he leaves me in a pickle—”
            If I collaborate, do I get to sing? That's what I want to know.



            Seems like all that's left of Jo now is her voice. But she keeps calling me.
            Even the sound of the phone is strange tonight, small and whispery. Like in stormy weather, when I think I hear it ring, and pick it up and find no one there. Like a voice speaking to me from the dark beyond, soft and intimate and not quite real. Like Jo's voice.
            That's one thing I do know about Jo's past. I know about her voice—how she changed it. You drop your pitch down five tones, pretend you haven't got a nose, take a deep breath, don't laugh, and—hello!—you don't sound like Mom any more.
            We’d both gone to acting school, that's how I know. And we’d both made the rounds awhile. I stopped one day when, having gotten caught up in being Blanche DuBois in a scene from Streetcar, I found myself standing in front of three strange men and an empty theater in my little blue slip. Went back to writing, where I can take off my clothes in relative privacy.
            And when she was a kid, she used to sing into a tape recorder, just like I did—sing carefully, breathily. The Misty Miss Christie was all I aspired to in those days. I first ran across Billie remaindered in a drugstore in Louisville: Lady in Satin. The first time I played that record, I laughed out loud. I couldn't believe it—this cracky-voiced old lady enunciating so carefully, with all these scrolls at the end of her words, and Somebody and his Swinging Strings in the background. But then I couldn't stop playing it.
            No record, tonight. I mean no Billie records, not one. Just one old Frances Wayne, you ought to be safe playing Frances Wayne, right? All those tom-toms, a piccolo, and The Desert Caravan? “You you YOU!” like somebody goosed her? But she sang You Go to my Head, too. And after she sang it, I found myself singing it. But I wasn't singing it like she does, I was singing it like Billie.
            Did I know, when I sang that song that way this evening, that I'd get another call tonight? Was I wishing it on myself? Couldn't stop singing it anyway. If I were a real music-maker I’d sing around her, against her, the way Lester does with his tenor. But no, I want to do it just the way she does it, to step on the notes she steps on, to rush on with her or pause and look around, to come out just where she comes out. My voice is smokier than it used to be when I sang so carefully into the tape recorder. Otherwise, what do I know?
            Not much. Who—or what—calls me up, in the middle of the night? Or what do I call up, chanting, in the early evening, a slow sideways sax-ridden You Go to My Head?
            Try to think clearly, now. Facts. Mundane, if possible. Jo sitting by my wood stove, her eyes closed, my cat in her lap, her little hand stroking it. Both of them looking zoned-out and blissful.
            "I always remember we shared a love of cats." That was my last message from Jo, printed in a tiny neat hand on a postcard with no cat on it. What could she have been thinking of? Just one last try at connecting, I guess. By then the phone calls had gotten brief and distant and painful. She’d called me once from a pay phone in a park in California. Said her friend out there had told her you survive by not hoping for too much. Especially from men.
            Still we did share a love of cats. This cat, that cat. All the cool cats. Learn to say yeah like a purr. Learn to settle back, your eyes half-closed, blink slowly, and say yeah. Like a yawn. Your mouth showing pink inside.
            Our old days at the Vanguard. When we finally got to see Chet Baker, after dreaming over his records all those years, he opened his mouth to sing and he had no teeth. But he still played and sang so sweet and small, he never needed a tooth at all.
            "Are you alone?" she asks me tonight. And all the hair on my arms stands up. Those other calls might've been a sister. This is Jo's voice. I know it.
            "Are you alive?" I want to ask.
            Am I alone? I look around my room, feeling the yes coming at me from every corner. But no—there's Billie, standing in the corner above the stereo. Flattened out into something black and groovy, a nice glossy picture. Still, her voice is real. I could take the records out and melt them down in my compost heap, and Billie's voice would go on talking in my head. Saying things I'd never say. “If I'd rather my man would hit me / Than he would up and quit me—”
            Never could sing that verse, myself, out loud, even in my Billie voice, even just sing-along. She sings it like she means it. And I guess those were her choices. Still, I’d choose never to sing again rather than to be able to say that, and mean it.
            But if things keep hitting you—if everything is a hit—a man, a tune, a shot, a snort—how would you finally know the difference between live and dead? What would you feel, at last, when the street hit you? Wouldn't you just be getting your own back? Is it feeling everything or feeling nothing, to be able to sing like that, sold your soul to the devil for that way of talking-in-your-sleep music, lost it in the music, lost it in the street, don't know, don't care, when they hit you, if it's you or not, if you're there or not, or if you were wiped out a long time ago and it's just your voice clicking on, hanging in the air there after you slide by, saying what you said the way you once said it? Do you have to be descending into hell, step by step, to sing that sweet and cool?
            Are you alone? the voice asks. I feel my pulse beating in my throat.
            But I'm not alone. I've got my cat here with me. My cat listens when I talk, watches when I walk. My cat sees, every morning, how I pick the tomatoes, how I make my own tomato paste. My cat watches me dance, slow and graceful in the mornings, hot and wild at night. My cat yawns nicely when I sing, but she doesn't say yeah. She goes to sleep, sometimes, in the middle of a number.
            The voice is a peculiar instrument, since it can say words as it plays itself. We think then that it must know whereof it speaks. But do the words matter without the music? All they are is a calling up.
            It's so strange, the woman up there in front of the band. The great sexy sacrificial singer, gardenia intact, forget the rest of her. If they don't listen you when you talk, try singing...
            Suppose I try singing, right in the middle of this serious conversation with this supposed sister? Suppose I sing, “If I go to church on Sunday,” wouldn't she have to sing back, “And cabaret all day Monday”? Wouldn't she sing it out, sing it back, just like Billie does, and then we could both start giggling? Wouldn't I have passed the test, if that's what this is? Jo always seemed to be living in her own world, with her own secret rules. Maybe this is one of the rules. Call up your friends and tell them you're dead, ask them to finish your book. See what they say. See if they believe you.
            "Let me think about it," I say.
            But I'm not thinking. I'm lying half-awake in the dark, staring at the little light on my telephone, with a dial tone in my ear that seems to have been going on forever.
            I punch in Jo's number. It rings. I can see the room where it's ringing—Jo's funky midnight-blue bedroom, with the blow-up of Billie over the bed, the same one I've got here on my wall. My heart pounds. I'm expecting some irritated stranger to cuss me out. Or maybe Jo's voice saying Sorry I can't come to the phone right now, I just stepped out the window. I'm ready for anything, I tell myself—phantom vibes striking up in my ear, shivering through a chorus of ‘Round Midnight, Sarah Vaughan scat-screaming at me through the telephone.             
            But I'm not quite ready for nothing.
            The phone keeps ringing. "Answer it, Jo," I say, out loud. "Let this be over." The sound of my voice, urgent and private in the emptiness of my own room, lets me know what kind of answer I can expect.
            At last I put the phone down. Jo's last number, I say to myself. No answer.
            But then I look over to the stereo. Billie seems to have stepped out from the wall. Her white gown shimmers softly, her hair glimmers blue-black. It’s the All-African-All-American princess, making an appearance here, no doubt about it—beautiful, remote, black eyes brimming with secrets. A dark goddess to all us old white girls, who will never know the powers she has. Or what she's been through, to get them. What do I say to her?
            I knew you weren't dead, I say.
            You can't be dead. I mean, here you are. In my life, night after night. Your voice in my ear, calling me to be—what? Whatever it is I never can be. Calling me out of myself. Out of my fresh-air, whole-grain, tomato-paste-making, solitary life, to some final smoky after-hours club, some life like Russian roulette, some love like hurting yourself.
            All right. I'm alone. And that hurts, sometimes. Sometimes it tears my frame. Not just sleeping alone. Eating alone. Coming home to a house where nothing has moved, where every object is exactly where I left it. Wondering if my life will always be like this—if I'll always be alone.
            But sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes I love it. I can move to my own loose rhythms. Dig fiercely in my garden till it's way too dark to see. Eat cold pizza and wild raspberries for breakfast. Walk the misty ridge at dawn, and find another solitary, the big buck that lives in the cedar glade, staring at me with his curious, familiar gaze.
            And anyway, I chose to be alone—didn't I?—last time I was asked. It cost me a lot, but there's one thing I ain't got—it's My Man.
            So what do you want from me, Billie?
            Just to make it clear I'm not you? I never expected to be you. I only wanted to sing like you.
            Maybe Jo did expect to be you. Maybe she was counting on it. And then one day she saw she couldn't do it. So she killed herself?
            Why would she do that, Billie? I don't dig it—I don't dig this killing yourself. For love? For dope? Why?
            The things we never said to each other. All there in the music, all along. Why am I surprised? The Pain, the Pain, Jo said. "Where does it hurt?" I should've asked. But I didn't. I thought she was just singing the blues.
            We all have our reasons, I guess.
            Did she think she was sacrificing her life to you? Did she want to be you so much she had to be dead? Or was it just too much coke and craziness and hopeless piled-up debts?
            Billie doesn't answer me. She just stands there, shining with her own light, her gardenia pulsing a little. Faint waves of scent coming from it now.
            I reckon she figures I called her up. I ought to be saying what I want.
            Okay, Billie.
            I want to listen to the music with Jo again. I want us to dance all night like wild women around her apartment. I want to call her number and hear her say hello in her cool-at-all-costs voice. I want Jo not to be dead.
            I want her not to have killed herself. I want her not to have walked out a 14th story window. I want her never to have gotten to the point where she could do that to herself.
            And if she did, I want her to leave me alone about it. I guess that's what I wanted all along. I want you to leave me alone. Why do I have to be you, in some part of me, every day? Why have I got your songs in my head? Why do you speak to me so, even when you speak the unspeakable?—men hurting you and you taking it? Choosing it, over being alone?
            It's not just a song, is it?
            Maybe Jo thought she could find that zone between here and the other side, where you hover, as you do now in my room, three feet off the floor—your gardenia still white, your skin still lovely warm brown. Maybe she thought she could reach the place where music is, that time outside of time. The place we're all reaching for, when we listen to you.
            But Jo couldn't get there. She could hear the music. But she couldn't get to it. Did she kill herself trying?
            Billie is silent. She just glitters at me, like her late-night world used to glitter at me, calling me out to see something, something I've missed, something I've been looking for. The gardenia scent is heavy in the room now, cloying, too-sweet, the way they get when they've been around too long.
            This is the sibyl you're talking to here, I say to myself. Ask the right question.
            That space between white women and black women. Common knowledge I can't bear, separate pain I can't share. A step beyond myself I've never taken. Needing to know. Afraid to ask.
            And Billie doesn't need to ask me anything. She was black and female and a genius in a world that said No way can you be that, girl. She'd figure my answers are just more of the same. Still the Man. Still the Pain.
            I guess I'm beginning to feel it, now.
            The string of men that always seemed to be appearing in Jo's life and then leaving her. The piano player she talked about, the one that played with Duke Ellington. “He's always there for me,” she told me. She was down here once and got panicked about her book and tried to get hold of him. He never returned her calls. She finally sent him a telegram. He didn't answer.
            And then there was my old friend Eric, who came by when she was here the last time, the time she spent zonked on my couch. She woke up when he came in, and the three of us had a long, pleasant, jokey conversation. That was it. But after she left, I got a one-sentence postcard from her: "I've decided to break off the thing with Eric."
            I began to wonder, then. I wondered about all the other men Jo talked about. I wondered how much of her life she just made up. I wondered how crazy she might be getting. But I didn't ask. Did I?
            Okay. I'm asking. I'm asking you, Billie. How crazy did she get? Where is she? Is she up there in New York, calling me? Is she anywhere at all?
            I see Jo, then. And I know, from the slow way I pick her out, that she's been here all along, waiting for me to see her. She's sitting in the corner, her shape emerging from one of the old wooden folding chairs I got at the funeral-parlor auction. She's wearing the baby-blue tee-shirt and shorts she had on the last time she came down. Her bare feet are braced on the bottom slat of the chair. I can see the sheen of her nice tan knees, and even her square little brown toes with their pearly-white painted toenails. She's giving me her droopy-eyed, last-flight-from-the-west-coast look, and she's smiling her secret, little-cool-girls-together smile, like we've both just been blown away by Billie, one more time.
            "Jo?" I say. "Please, Jo." I'm not sure what I'm asking her. Except that I have to ask it.
            I see her lips moving. But her voice seems to come from somewhere else, from the far-off other end of things. The breathy voice is just a whisper now, almost gone, like Billie's on her last records. The dying fall:
            In the beginning, you're jumping.
            In the end, you're falling.                               
            I hear a breath, my own breath, let out. I close my eyes, letting go. I see, in my mind, my old friend Jo falling away from me. Her small dear womanly form, her round surprised face. Falling, alone, into the dark. I feel the street waiting for her, down below.
            When I open my eyes again, Jo is gone. The folding chair is just two curved pieces of wood. Billie is back on the wall above the stereo, poised in her deep-drawn silence, waiting for the beat.

*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
           
A phone call like the one that begins “Calling Up Billie” actually happened--not to me but to a close friend of mine. She was shaken by the call and when she told me about it, I was a little spooked myself. I’d met the woman in question, and I knew she was a dedicated Billie Holiday fan, like me.
            A few weeks after that, the story started telling itself in my head. I never write first person stories, but this one ran off with me, and I let it. The quotes from songs, the jazzlike structure—all of that just happened.     But then it quit on me. It took me forever to figure out how the story had to end. Still I love it because its cadences carried me as close as I’ll ever get to Billie.

*****

ABOUT SUSAN STARR RICHARDS
           
Susan Starr Richards’ first novel, Chapel of Carnal Love, was published by Armory New Media in December 2012 as a born e-book. [See below for link.]
Her short stories have been published in The Sewanee Review, The Kenyon ReviewThe Southern Review, and Shenandoah, and anthologized in Best New Stories from the South and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She won the first Thoroughbred Times National Fiction Contest and has been a NEA Fellow in Fiction. Larkspur Press published her book of poems, The Life Horse. Her short prose chapbook Feeding Wolfgang came out in 2011 from Three Sheets Press in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Millions recently reviewed her story collection from Sarabande Books, The Hanging in the Foaling Barn. The Millions : Post-40 Bloomer: Susan Starr Richards Escapes the ...  Her 2012 essay on being a late bloomer as a writer, “Turning Loose,” can be found at Susan Starr Richards | Bloom .
            She and her husband live on their farm in the Outer Bluegrass farm of Kentucky. For thirty years they raised thoroughbreds to sell and to race. Now she helps care for their retired racehorses, and writes fiction and poetry in her workshed in the woods.
             



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