SISTER WAS NEVER good at disguising what she was thinking. Not that she wanted to anyway. The way she narrowed her eyes, the way she twisted her lips, the placement of her hands, the shifting of her lithe, hourglass frame—all of it was her very deliberate way of letting anyone with eyes, ears and a half a brain cell know exactly what was on her mind. And right then, at that very moment, as she stood, hand on hip, in the kitchen of the Discovery Club, alternately glaring at the singer on the cramped, dilapidated stage and the audience’s enthusiastic response to him, Sister’s stance was screaming three things: Troll! Damn, he can sing! You couldn’t pay me to go out on that stage after him!
Sparkle was fluent in Sister-speak—knew that she’d have to do some fast talking if she was going to get her big sister to walk out on that stage and perform behind Black, a big, greasy, sweaty mess of a man with a voice and stage presence that made him practically morph into Marvin Gaye before the audience’s eyes. Sister craved attention—fancied herself the star. Playing musical cleanup was not an option.
Sparkle’s eyes shifted between Sister’s glower and the stage, where, at that very moment, Black was whipping his hand in the air to signal the piano, bass and harmonica musicians to stop playing his soul-stirring blues tune. Black caressed the microphone between his fat, sweaty palms, closed his eyes, cocked his head and stood silent—a dramatic pause that suspended space and time and left the packed crowd hanging so hard on his next note that even the roaches crawling over the crusty dishes back in the kitchen stood still.
And just when the room was about to burst waiting to see what the theatrical singer would do next, just when the piano man’s arms, suspended over his instrument’s keys, started to ache, just when Sister shifted onto her other hip and furrowed her brow so hard her foundation yawned just a bit on her forehead, Black let go of the microphone on the stand, raised his hands in exaltation and, with a growl that rose from the depths of his belly, belted, “I’m a maaaaaaaan!”—the hook to the soul-stirring, make-’em-scream-hallelujah a capella version of Bo Diddley’s smoky blues song.
Everybody—the musicians, the drug dealers sitting in the choice seats, the young guys cozying up to their dates with dreams of getting lucky later on, the shop workers and hairdressers and school cleaners who’d climbed out of their work clothes and into their finest outfits to enjoy what little bit of fun and freedom they could muster in the bowels of the club, the bartender, the waitresses—everybody jumped to their feet and hollered like they were sitting on the front pew testifying at the holiest of church revivals.
And Black? He grilled it up and ate it whole. Every. Single. Morsel.
Sparkle knew it was time for some fast talking, or she was going to lose Sister. “Sister, please, just hold on, now . . .” Sparkle began. But Sister was having none of it.
“No,” she said simply, hand still on hip, eyes still on Black.
“But you’re up next—I can’t change the run of the show and if you don’t go after him, you’re not going to get to go at all,” Sparkle reasoned.
“I said no,” Sister snapped. “I am not going on after a troll who just sang himself cute.”
Sparkle adjusted her angle so that she was standing in front of Sister, blocking her view of Black and the audience, which by now was shouting and clapping and testifying so hard the clapboard floors and crumbling wall plaster rumbled. “Pretty please?” Sparkle begged, turning on her modest-little-sister charm.
“I don’t even know why I let you talk me into coming down here,” Sister said, her eyes shifting from one young face to the next. The room was full of young’uns—their naiveté practically dripping from their pores. At twenty-eight years old, with enough living under her belt to outmatch most fifty-year-olds, Sister had neither the time, the energy, nor the foolishness it would take to win over a bunch of teenagers anyway. “I think I’m the oldest sardine in this can.”
“You don’t look it,” Sparkle quickly opined.
“That’s the truth,” Sister said slyly, flipping her hair and running her hands along the outlines of her hip-hugging satin pencil skirt and her tight black sweater with a scoop cut in the back. Sister looked good. And she knew it, for sure. “It’s your song anyway. You go out there and sing it.”
“But you’re the singer in our family,” Sparkle said, anxiously peeking over her shoulder and saying a silent prayer that Black keep milking the crowd long enough for her to con Sister onto the stage.
“So?” Sister snapped. “You can sing, too.”
“Yeah,” Sparkle said, moving herself into her sister’s line of vision. “But you know how to keep people’s attention . . .” Just as the words pushed themselves from Sparkle’s lips, both she and Sister caught sight of him—some goofy guy with Coke-bottle glasses and an awkward grin, staring down Sister. “See?” Sparkle said quickly. “People want to see you talk. Imagine how you’ll blow them away when you sing. Come on, Sister, just say you’ll do it . . .”
Just then, Black sat on top of his final note, stretching it so far and so long and so wide the audience’s thunderous applause was near deafening. When he finally let go of the note, he stood there in his black jumpsuit, a wash rag in his hand, mopping his brow and taking in every praise like it was a steak dinner. The announcer rushed to the stage, he, too, applauding wildly, and patted Black on the back while he expertly snatched the mic from the singer. “Black, ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said. “We’ll keep the applause going. Next up . . .”
Sparkle’s heart skipped two beats. “Please,” she begged Sister. She was racing against time. “I just want to hear my song.”
The announcer kept on: “Sister Anderson! This is her first time at the Discovery Club, so make her feel welcome!”
Sparkle looked at the announcer, then back at Sister. She was starting to panic. “Please, I begged the owner to let you come sing tonight and he squeezed us in even though he really didn’t want to. If you back out now, no one will ever hear my song and no one can sing it like you can. Now, I went over everything with the band, and . . .”
Just then, all 300-plus pounds of sweaty Black rolled their way to the backstage area, crowding out all those who stood waiting their turn to take the stage. He practically pushed Sparkle out of the way to step right in front of Sister; his hot breath seared the rouge Sister had swiped from the makeup case her mother had buried in the bathroom linen closet. Black stared Sister down as the announcer called her name once again. “You sure you want to do this?” he asked, a smug smile stretching across his face.
Sister couldn’t stand smug bastards, but what she adored more than anything was a challenge. There was no way she was going to step back off this bet. Sister smiled back at Black, locked eyes with him, and, without saying a word, slipped her arms out of her sweater and spun it around so that the low cut was in the front, where there was now lots of cleavage. Sister, her eyes digging straight down into Black’s soul, said everything that needed to be said between the two. Sister’s...