“Two Tom Collins, two rum and cokes, one with lime, one with lemon and a Heineken. Anything else?”
“I’d like a water please.”
“Of course. Water all around.”
The five women would nurse their drinks slowly, mixing in sips of water, marking time until they found likely admirers to buy their next rounds. Marcie had observed the efforts of this group of girlfriends before in their sparkly dresses, platform shoes, big hair and flirtatious ways. While Marcie didn’t exactly approve of their strategy, she had to admit it usually worked for them. Sometimes, the men they lured tipped big to impress, so Marcie didn’t mind the women’s slow consumption. Considering the growing Friday night crowd, her patience would probably pay off.
The shiny silver dance floor reflected the fractured gleam of a large, mirrored ball onto a small group of line dancers, regulars warming up before the club filled with amateurs who would just get in their way.
Sometimes, when things were slow, Marcie put down her tray and danced with the group for a few minutes, kicking, spinning, laughing and clapping. Reveling in the release before she had to rush back and earn a living.
She waved at her friends on the dance floor as she made her way to the bar and smiled when one of them blew her a kiss. She still wore the smile when she turned and saw him standing there, right next to her station. Marcie hid her surprise when he returned her smile, staring directly at her.
She tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal to see him there, in real life, as if she hadn’t just been bopping to his latest hit while on her way to work, hadn’t just seen him on TV a few days before.
Instead, she moved to her place right next to him and leaned over the bar as usual to give Chuck her order. Chuck, with his ear turned to her, nodded that he’d received the information, then cocked his head toward the man, waggling his eyebrows.
Obviously Chuck recognized him too.
Marcie figured he’d picked the spot to avoid attracting too much attention. Tucked in a shadowy corner away from staring eyes, Marcie always claimed the section as her own. She liked working on the far side of the dance floor. With her back to the wall, the way Marcie usually stood while she had a cigarette between ferrying drinks, she could observe the entire bar, see all the comings and goings. It was quieter there too, allowing conversation without shouting over the throbbing disco beat.
But when the rock star kept staring at her, smiling at her each time she came to place an order, she thought it might be something else. He’d been silent. Not talking to anyone. Just watching her.
Finally, she couldn’t stand his silence anymore.
“Hi, Duke,” she said, holding her hand out. “I’m Marcie.”
He actually blushed, looked down at his own shoes before he stuck his hand out, and clasped the tips of her fingers the way men do when they don’t want to shake a woman’s hand. Marcie didn’t know if she should be charmed by his obvious shyness or irritated at his limp handshake. She rejected both emotions when she heard his next words.
“I know you.”
Duke knew who she was? Marcie tried to hide her surprise. “I’m afraid to ask.”
He grinned, looked at her out of the corner of his eye like he had a secret. “I like your hat.”
She chuckled at how smoothly he’d avoided responding to her, then picked up her tray and went to deliver more drinks.
Marcie thought he must have heard her name because of his old girlfriend. Kallie Upchurch had gone to a school across town, but people had often mistaken the two of them. Marcie never understood it. Kallie was petite, beautiful with carmel-colored skin and big dimples. Sure, they were both mixed race, but that didn’t mean Marcie resembled Kallie. There were three families on Marcie’s block alone who had the same light skin, the same curly, kinky hair.
Kallie and Duke had been an item for many years. So maybe that’s why he knew her.
Of course everyone knew Duke.
She emptied ash trays, wiped down spills, and took orders, all while thinking about Duke’s first single. It had been a chart buster, rocketing to the top of all the lists, played over and over on the radio. Everyone in the old neighborhood had known when he’d gone to California to record the album, and they’d all known, once the right people heard him, Duke would be a huge star. It was inevitable. There was too much talent packed into the small man. Eventually the world would know what they’d all recognized long ago.
Marcie smiled to herself. He said he liked her hat. She glanced at him standing in the corner and found him watching her.
She’d taken to wearing different hats every night to cover her close-cropped hair. Tonight, it was an old, Russian Army hat she’d picked up in a thrift store with a pointed peak in the front and short bill. Now that she’d become a soldier in the Army Reserve, she’d grown an affinity to military hats. Skinny jeans tucked into a loosely tied pair of the combat boots she usually wore with her uniform and a black tank top completed her outfit. She’d powdered her face and dabbed on a touch of rouge, a little lip gloss and mascara and that was it. After going through basic training, she’d never gotten back into the habit of wearing much make up.
She chuckled to herself, wondering what the rock star would think if he saw her in uniform.
Marcie returned to her station, gave Chuck a long list of drinks to prepare and made a lame attempt at conversation.
“I saw you on TV last week,” Marcie said. When he didn’t reply, she realized he wouldn’t contribute much to filling the awkward silences, instead he seemed content to watch her every move. “You were … really good,” she said, continuing her pathetic attempt to make conversation. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized how ridiculous she sounded.
“Thanks,”he mumbled, barely moving his lips.
“It was really … “
He gave her that sly smile again and her hesitation went away. If he was going to stand there, she was going to say it.
“Well it was just … so unexpected. Shocking really. I mean, I’ve seen you play lots of times. Everyone knew you’d be a star. When you played at a dance, we had to go no matter where it was. I mean, your music is amazing. But … it was … “ She wanted to say what she really thought but still wasn’t sure if she should.
He tucked his lips in as if trying to prevent a smile. He lowered his gaze, rosy color rising to his cheeks as he shook his head, chuckling. She noticed he wore a thin line of black eyeliner, almost as thin as the mustache on his lip. In fact, now that she saw him close up, she realized he wore more make-up than she did.
Dressed in a black button-down shirt, with the collar turned up, black jeans and black shiny shoes, he looked like the guy she’d known in high school. Even though Duke always wore at least two inch heels, she still stood taller than him.
No question, he was a tiny man, not her type at all. He was almost beautiful, with those doe eyes and full lips. And there was nothing sexier than to see him play guitar. It was like he made love to the instrument, as if each thrum of the keys struck an erotic cord. Every song, slow or fast, rocking or mellow felt like a seduction.
But looking at him, standing in front of her with that crooked smile, she felt as if she would never understand him, like he was an enigma impossible for her to crack.
When he opened his eyes again they were full of mischief. “It’s okay. You can say it.”
Now that she had his permission, she blurted it. “You were wearing underwear! And fishnet stockings! And high heeled boots! I mean, what the fuck?”
He grabbed his belly and laughed, his head thrown back.
Now that she’d started, she couldn’t stop. He was a guy from her hood, her homeboy, the man they all knew would be a big star someday and he’d shocked them all with the way he’d looked on his first appearance on national television.
She and her sisters had sat in front of the television with their hands over their mouths. “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,” They’d screamed it so many times they’d almost missed the brilliant, earth-shatteringly, amazing performance he’d given. A performance that had left the hosts of the show as speechless as Marcie and her sisters had been.
“Seriously, Duke. What the hell? Is that like, some stylist’s idea of how you should look, or did you always want to go on national television in your freakin’ underwear? Not just underwear but leopard skin underwear, Duke. Seriously. What the fuck?”
He continued to laugh, his face glowing red, staring at Marcie through eyes slit in mirth.
Marcie stared at him. “Well, are you going to answer me? It was your manager right? They wanted to give you like … a persona or something?”
Duke looked away with that I-know-something-you-don’t-know look on his face. She didn’t know if it was attractive or exasperating.
Then he fixed his gaze on her, one eyebrow lifted, as if in challenge to see if she could handle the truth. He reached down to tug his shirt out of where it was tucked into his pants, bunching it slowly in his fist, inch by inch.
There, around his waist, was a thin gold chain, shiny and delicate. It fit his waist perfectly to position a tiny gold medallion directly over his bellybutton. The gleaming oval had some kind of figure on it, like a Saint Christopher medal, but in order for Marcie to see what it was, she’d have to bend down and examine it.
And she was not going to do that.
After staring at it for a long moment, Marcie looked up and met Duke’s dark, expressive eyes, waiting for her reaction.
“So,” she said, drawing the word out. “Not a stylist’s idea then.”
Not taking her eyes off him, hoping something more understandable would come out of his mouth, Marcie picked up her tray and headed back to the tables.
The two-Tom Collins, two rum and cokes and Heineken table now had five Budweisers added to their order. One of the Budweiser guys handed Marcie a fifty to cover the bill and as expected, left her a worthwhile tip.
Marcie hit all of the rest of the tables, emptying ash trays, cleaning up empties and taking orders.
When she returned to the bar, Duke was still there, smiling at her return.
For several nights in a row, at different times of the night, Marcie would return to her station to find Duke waiting for her, that secret, sexy smile and his watchful attention. He came on slow week nights when there was little work to pull her away but the lack of activity didn’t mean conversation came any easier.
They’d often just stand there, leaning against the wall or the bar, neither of them talking. He seemed comfortable with that, but to Marcie, it was more than uncomfortable. She wasn’t a gabby person, but she enjoyed banter, lively conversation, an exchange of information to explore and develop familiarity.
Duke didn’t seem to care about that.
“We should go out sometime,” he said, one night.
“Really? Why?” Marcie asked, genuinely surprised that he’d want more of this silence, more of these confusing messages. She knew if she could get him to speak, she’d find treasure. Anyone who wrote the way he did, who performed the way he did had a depth she knew would be worth the effort, but she’d failed night after night, to say the thing that would unlock his words.
“Why not?” Duke said, his head cocked to the side as if shocked that she’d hesitate.
Because I’m not doing this right, she wanted to say. Because I’ve been searching but I can’t find the key.
He looked so much younger than Marcie felt. They were both at the start of their lives. Marcie knew she wouldn’t be working at the club next weekend because she’d be at drill with her Army Reserve unit. She looked forward to going on summer maneuvers with them in a few weeks. She hadn’t brought up the fact that she was a part-time soldier, knowing her M16 would be just as unfamiliar to him as his guitar was to her.
If she gave it any real thought, Marcie wondered if she really wanted to get close to him. Maybe it would be better to be an adoring fan. Besides, something about a connection to Duke felt frighteningly serious, as if he wanted something from her that she felt wholly unable to give. What she did know was that he was a man who would be famous. So famous, he’d soon forget about these nights hanging out at her station.
“You’ve stood here for days hardly speaking. I don’t know that we have anything to talk about.”
But when he asked, she’d given him her phone number anyway.
Marcie wished she could say she remembered it like it was yesterday, but hell, she had trouble remembering yesterday like it was yesterday. She wouldn’t even be thinking about it if everyone else hadn’t been drudging up all the old memories, about the old times, the times when he was just starting out, when they were all so young and full of promise.
She’d been busy in the office and rushing to a meeting when the breaking news headlines had started rolling across the screen.
Duke found dead in his home.
It always hit hard when she heard someone from the old neighborhood had died. In her late fifties, the news that someone else had fallen ill or been killed in an accident came more and more frequently. She’d started to grow accustomed to it.
She’d seen him less than five years ago. He’d walked right past her, on the arm of a famous actress. At the time, Marcie had wanted to catch his eye, see if he remembered her, but she knew he wouldn’t.
The whole world now mourned Duke. Most of them didn’t know him any more than Marcie could claim to. Like Marcie, they felt connected to him because of the memories of events his music conjured. The song they had played at a wedding, the hit that reminded them of the slow dance with someone special, the Duke mega-hit they’d blast with the top down and a long, hot summer stretched before them. They remembered concerts, joy and melancholy, and the sexcapades they’d had to the tune of one of his songs.
Marcie’s memories were foggy, but parts of them were crystal clear.
Like the time Duke asked for her phone number. And how he’d never called.