The air in the basement was so thick and close, Jacquie struggled with her breathing, and more than anything, she wanted to go home and play her Aretha Franklin records and cry. But last week she’d begged for this open mic slot, and beggars don’t get to be divas. Not in dives like this, with ceilings so low she could reach up and touch the dank acoustical tiles while her Vans stuck to the spilled beer on the concrete floor. She couldn’t even imagine how much worse it would have been back in the days of smoking in public places. “Count your blessings,” her mother, who’d sung in those smoky clubs, once told her. “If they pay you to sing, you show up and sing, come hell or high water. Even if they don’t pay you. Never know what it might lead to.”
Might lead to suffocation, Jacquie thought. She’d been ticking off acts in her head and knew she had maybe ten, fifteen minutes tops to step outside for some air and a hit of asthma meds before she was supposed to go on. She waited until the young guy on stage was done with his rap—not bad—to sneak out the side exit.
The relief of the cool night kissed her skin. Traffic wound through the neighborhood, people went to bars and restaurants, oblivious to the ache in her chest, the gaping chasm in her soul. “The show must go on,” her mother also told her. Every time Jacquie’s nerves acted up or she was coming down with a cold or even that one night when her father was in the hospital and she was supposed to sing lead in the school play.
Jacquie went on.
As she held the medication in her lungs, she wondered how she was supposed to go on tonight. “Respect” was the first song she’d ever sung. Two and a half years old, singing with her mother in the living room. Her first memory.
The door opened; the guy who’d done the rap stepped out, gave her a nod, offered a cigarette he took back when he saw her inhaler, but he lit one up for himself and blew the smoke the other way. Close up he didn’t look so young. Maybe twenty-five, thirty. It could have been a trick of the street lamps out here, or an illusion of the stage lighting in there. Whatever. Age is just a number. People have been telling her she’s too young to even know about Aretha, too white to like or even sing her music. Screw that.
“You on the list?” he asked. “Or just didn’t feel like staying home?”
“Yes,” Jacquie said.
“I hear that.” He dropped his cig on the sidewalk, ground it out with a big-ass-sneaker toe, crossed his arms over his skinny chest. “Way I figure is, they can’t do it, so we gotta.”
She nodded. Letting that soak in and make sense.
“You know,” he added, “I think it would be a damn shame if you didn’t go on tonight.”
“Really.” His eyes were sweet, his smile warm and friendly. “And why’s that?”
“Cause then I wouldn’t get to hear you sing again. Best version of ‘Chain of Fools’ I ever heard coming out of a white girl.”
She didn’t know how to react to that, but he laughed. Which made her laugh. She remembered that night. Her first open mic at this same club. A friend dared her to sing, and sing she did. She felt so good after she didn’t even need her inhaler.
Then she fell serious. “Is it disrespectful, you think? To sing her songs, especially tonight?”
“Hell,” he said. “I think the whole world should be singing her songs. Especially tonight.”
She hooked an eyebrow at him. “You have some nice musicality when you rap. You sing any?”
“You know that duet she sang with Ray Charles? ‘Two to Tango’?”
“Oh, damn yeah. That was one of my favorites.”
She stuck her inhaler back in her pocket and reached for his hand. “Come back in and sing it with me.”