Her hands are wrinkled and an oily chestnut color. Her lipstick is red, eyes dark and sparkling with the light of the Cherokee ancestors she always bragged had mixed with her own African bloodlines. She sits straight in the chair and even though she is seated, her bony hips, and the hollows beside them, are visible through the red velvet dress. She is staring out the window of her brown apartment, the portrait of composure, when her caretaker enters.
This is glamour.
Gone are the smoky stages, the rich white men braving ridicule and buying a colored girl a drink after she sings her last song. Gone is the band, Sam thumping along on his bass, leading the rest of the boys like the great Charles Mingus while she sings. She used to imagine that her crooning, soulful words turned into smoke and filled the room after they left her mouth. She met him once: Mingus. Her band opened for his in San Francisco and after she came offstage Mingus wrapped his thick fingers around her whole hand. She felt his callouses, hard like a turtle’s shell, formed over a lifetime of taming his giant bass, and he said, “I dig the way you move with the music. It’s how breathing should look.” Mingus was a big man and that night he had gotten angry with his trumpeter. Charles brought the song to a clattering halt to scream at the boy, but when he had held her hand and spoken to her all she could think was that he had the deepest eyes she had ever seen, like the lives of a thousand people had played out in their depths. She tells that story often, to anyone who will listen, usually while smoking a cigarette. She’s not supposed to smoke anymore but her government-provided caretaker has long since given up reminding her of this.
She lights a Virginia Slim.
You’ve come a long way, baby.
A long way from South Carolina and Ella Fitzgerald on the radio. A long way from the school she never finished. A long way from borrowing dresses from her friend’s sisters when she wanted to go to a school dance. The red velvet gown is hers. She can still wear it. That is her pride. She tells the caretaker every day, “I wore this onstage the day I met Charles Mingus. Did I ever tell you about the time I met Charles?” Her chest is bony and the dress sags where she had once filled it. She puts it on in the afternoon, sometimes later if the caretaker has taken the threadbare and faded garment to the dry-cleaner’s to remove the worst of the cigarette ash. Her hair, still mostly black even at the age of seventy-nine, is beginning to fall out, turning the part that runs down the center of her scalp into a widening furrow. The caretaker tells her to eat but she spurns Jell-O, declaring that “Man isn’t meant to eat anything that moves like that.” Her voice croaks and sometimes cracks underneath the weight of words. When this happens it sounds like someone crushing glass under a heavy piece of cloth. Her chestnut skin has begun to take on a dusty quality. She only accepts one meal a day, try as her caretaker might to make her eat, and she picks at what she does receive.
This is the price of beauty.
Sometimes it feels like the dress is crushing her. This happens when she thinks of the free drinks; of slow fingers sliding down her spine to the small of her back, fingers that sometimes still held a wedding a ring. The man would smile. He would always be handsome in her memories, clean-shaven, with brown hair. He would brave it all, losing his family, his friends, his life for one night with her. That’s why he kept the wedding ring on, to show her what he was risking by sliding his hand over the soft velvet and wrapping his fingers around her hip. Sometimes he was a promoter, helping her book the band. Sometimes he was a man who’d taken to the bar after a fight with his wife. Sometimes he owned the club. He was always handsome, and the weight of him crushes her now.
This is beauty’s reward.
She grips the dress in tiny fists, the fabric stretching across her thighs. She has forgotten about the cigarette butt and it smolders on the floor of her room. She doesn’t remember when the caretaker left. She sits in front of the window in her red dress, her bony chest heaving, expanding ribs stretching papery skin, and the dress is crushing the life out of her.
Hunter Markham's work has also appeared in Calliope and he hopes you keep your eyes peeled for the day his name appears on the cover of a novel.