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Epochalips

New Writing

This excerpt from a new Gilda Story was published in DARK MATTER, the first anthology of African American speculative fiction.

Chicago  1927

High and light, the rich notes of her song lifted from the singer like a bird leaving a familiar tree. The drummer stopped and the base slipped in behind the voice, laying out deep tones that matched hers. Gilda stood at the back of the dimly lit Club Evergreen, letting the soothing sound of music ripple through the air and fall gently around her. She fixed her gaze on the tiny stage and the woman singing, her body coiled around the sound of her own voice. Gilda had come to the Evergreen each weekend for a month to hear the woman sing. “Lydia Redmond, Indian Love Call” the window card read beneath her picture outside the club.

On her first night walking through the streets of Chicago, Gilda had seen the sign and been drawn by the gleaming beauty of Lydia Redmond’s face. That had been enough to draw her inside. The sheer simplicity of Lydia’s voice now rang persistently inside Gilda’s head, binding her to the place as if she’d known it all of her life.

The smoky air and clink of glasses crowded Gilda, filling the room almost as much as the attentive audience. Black and brown faces bobbed and nodded as they sat at tiny tables on mismatched chairs. Others, some white, stood at the short bar watching the set along with the tall, light-skinned bartender, Morris. His austere starched white shirt was off set by the flash of his thick ID bracelet that said ‘HOPE.’ Patrons often teased him about his long lost love, but he always answered the same thing with a conspiratorial grin: “It’s a concept.”

A people stood in the back near the entrance transfixed, as was Gilda. She tried to grasp what it meant that these people were here in this room, seemingly at peace. The world outside was still conspiring against Black people, everyone in Evergreen’s would know that. Yet the spirit circling through the shabby, crowded room was light and strong, as if the burdens had settled on shoulders, not ground them under. The energy was traveling on the notes of the singer’s voice.

She had finally created the opportunity to meet Lydia Redmond through the club’s owner Benny Green. Only a slight glance, held a moment longer than necessary to plant the idea, and Benny treated Gilda as if she were a long-missed relative. Lydia was full of playfulness sitting with Gilda at Benny’s table after her show the night he introduced them. The luminescence in the photograph that had drawn Gilda shimmered around Lydia when she laughed. Missing was the sorrow that cloaked so many club singers. The blues rested in a small corner within Lydia but her songs only passed by that space; they drew more strength from something else. Gilda wasn’t yet sure what that was. When Lydia looked into Gilda’s eyes that first night, she’d read her so intently that Gilda had to turn away.

The last note of a sweet, up-tempo number wavered in the air then was enveloped by unrestrained applause and shouts. Gilda smiled as she slipped out of the door of the club’s entrance into the short alley and was startled to see Benny holding a young boy by the collar.

“I ain’t jivin’ you, Lester. You get home to your sister right now. You want me stoppin’ by to have a talk with her?”

“Naw.”

“Naw what?”

“Naw sir.”

“I done told you don’t hang in this alley. You ain’t heard they shootin’ people this side of town? Colored folks ain’t bullet proof.”

“Yes sir,” the boy said blankly as if he’d been told he was standing in a loading dock.

“I’m tellin’ you there’s been shootin’ here boy! Don’t crap out on me.”

“Yes sir,” Lester let himself show the childlike emotions he truly felt---curiosity, excitement.

“Here,” Benny said as he handed the boy a folded bill. He looked about seven years old and was dressed in pants and a jacket much too large for him, like many children Gilda had seen.

“Take that to your sister.” Benny’s thin mustache curved up as his lips could no longer resist a smile. “Tell her come by my place tomorrow…no not tomorrow. Make it the next day, tell her come at noon time. Ya hear?”

“Yes…yes sir.” The child’s face lost its stiff fear and he almost smiled as Benny shoved him toward the mouth of the alley.

“Damn.”

“A colleague?” Gilda said lightly.

“He’d like to be. How in hell can you keep ‘em out the game if you can’t keep ‘em in the house!” Benny’s voice was raw with anger.

Gilda didn’t have to listen to his thoughts to sense the anxiety and concern swirling around underneath his hard tone.

“I already got two laundry women. Looks like I’ma have to hire me another one. She lost her job,” Benny jerked his thumb in the direction of the darkness where the boy had disappeared. “His sister, she takes care of a passel of them.”

Maybe you should open a laundry house. Gilda caught Benny’s gaze and let the thought drift from her mind into his. The night air cradled the idea as it passed like a fragrance.

“Maybe…you know I got the back end of the joint, facing off North Street….maybe I’ll set them up in there. Get us a laundry going! Everybody got dirty sheets. Damn. That’s it!”

 “You have a good heart Benny.”

“What else I’ma do?” he said, shrugging off her praise.

“That’s what I mean,” Gilda said.

“Lester’s okay, he just ain’t got nothin’ to do but hang around trying to grab some pennies. Morris had to snatch him and some other boys up out some trouble last week. If it ain’t the Italians sweeping through it’s the Irish.”

“You and Morris ready to start your own orphanage?” Gilda said with a laugh as she started toward the mouth of the alley.

“Hey, you comin’ by the party later? We got a fine spread.” Benny’s smooth skin was like brown velvet in the light of the alley. He pulled at the cuffs of each sleeve under his jacket and smoothed his hand across his short cut hair, readying himself to return to the bar.

“I’ll be there.”

“You know, cousin, you need to be careful walking these streets by yourself in the middle of the night.”

“Thanks, Benny, I’m just going up to the corner. I’ll be right back.”

“Umph,” Benny grunted his disapproval then said with a smile, “You know I can’t handle it when a good lookin’ woman stands me up.”

Gilda waved as she turned and walked swiftly out to the street. She looked north then south before she picked her direction. The air felt brisk and fresh on her smooth skin, untouched by the decades that had led her to this moment. The deep brown of her eyes was still clear, sparkling with questions just as they had when she was truly a girl. Her full mouth was firm, tilted more toward a smile than a frown and inviting even without the faint trace of lipstick she only occasionally applied.

She recognized the fragrance of fall was in the trees just as she had every season for almost a hundred years years. Gilda marveled at how different each part of the country smelled.  Over time, the scent of everything altered subtly—grass, wood, even people. Nothing in her face revealed the decades that had passed since Gilda took her first breath on a plantation in Mississippi. The years between then and now were heavily guarded trunks, opened infrequently.  After journeying through most of the countryside and small towns west of the Rocky Mountains, this was her first stop in a major city in some years. She was eager to get back to the club, Benny and Lydia Redmond. But the rush of blood inside her head pushed her further into the dark, away from the sound of music.