Harlem’s Trial (New York, 1944)

— Peppur Chambers

She slowly stained her lips with another coat of new lipstick, Iced Ruby Red. It made her voluptuous pout even poutier and that thrilled her in her secret place. She pressed her lips together like a baby-doll’s, when its string is pulled to say, “mom-ma.”

Stepping back from her vanity mirror, she smiled and reviewed her figure that she inherited from the fine lineage of her black, brown, and beige ancestors. Her silk black dress danced around her slim calves as she posed this way and that, just like the bombshells she’d seen in Life magazine. Turning her bell-shaped bottom to the mirror, she craned her neck to check out her rear. A chocolate-velvet cascade of freshly pressed, curled hair fell over an amber eye and she sent a puff of air to move it aside as her hands slid the dress up a bit.

“Divine,” she said, giggling. The two black stocking seams marching up her sculpted calves made her think of Joe’s supple fingers sliding in rhythm along the neck of his upright bass.

She loved to watch Joe play. He was playing again tonight at the Cornett Lounge. They’d been reacquainted there three weeks ago when she’d gone in for a cocktail with her best friend Cora, who’d been having a doozy of a fight with her loser boyfriend, Harold.

From her closet, she grabbed a black wool gabardine jacket with wide flowing arms and mink at the cuffs. It was her reward for four months of working at Mrs. Chen’s dress shop. She pinned her hat on her head, arranging the black lattice veil just so.

She quickly straightened the pillow on her bed that was sewn by her mother many years ago. Stitched in bright pink yarn, it bore her name: ‘Harlem.’

Harlem walked briskly through the streets of the city for which she was named. She often wondered why she was named so. There was no one left to ask. Her mother had shot herself dead almost two years ago in their home in North Carolina, and her father, well—Harlem had shot him with the same gun.

Harlem paused and dabbed the thin layer of perspiration from above her Ruby Red lip as she pushed through the heavy door. Inside, she was enveloped in warm darkness and a wave of sound. If she’d been high on opium, as she had been in the past, she’d have sworn she could actually see jazz notes and words of conversation floating on the wisps of tobacco smoke. She closed her eyes, inhaled once again, and allowed herself to become one with all that swirled around her. This could be her heaven.

A thrilling chill ran through her as she spotted Joe on stage, his head bowed as if in prayer, his fingers hard at work on his bass. She moved to her favorite spot at the bar, buying a loose Camel from the passing Cigarette Girl who looked like she needed a meal and a comb.

As Harlem turned to get a light from Scotty, the not-so-handsome-but-very-charming-bartender, she heard, “Harrrrlm. Harrrlm Markeson!”

It was Harold, Cora’s boyfriend. Never did she hate the sound of her own name more than when hurled through the garbled gates of hell known as Harold Crossgrove’s mouth.

“Whatchu doin’ here, Harrrlm?” he drawled.

His rancid breath was stronger than a Joe Louis left jab and it caught her square on the chin. She shut her eyes and shook her head. Joe’s strained notes called out to her like smelling salts, as they had last summer when he played at Lady Magdalena’s Manor where she and the Brown Betties danced involuntarily to the magic he created. She opened her eyes and leaned around Harold to let Joe know she heard his music calling. Harold turned with her.

“Didn’t know you likes jazz so much.”

This time she was ready for the Joe Louis K.O. and held her breath while Harold spoke. She nodded.

“This band’s pretty decent. That guy right thur, the one strummin’ the upright, that’s my buddy Joe.”

“How could you possibly know Joe?” she blurted as she released her breath and crossed her arms.

“What chu mean ‘how could I possibly know Joe?’” Harold said, leaning into her.

Harlem stood. She brought her unlit cigarette to her lips and Harold graciously lit it.

“Thank you.” She inhaled deeply. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it, Harold.”

“You an’ Cora ain’t th’ only two peoples in the whole entire un’verse, Harrrlm. Me and Joe works togetha’ down at Grand Central Station. Joe been tellin’ me to come down for quite some time now, but my money wasn’t lookin’ towards entertainin’ these past few weeks. I’m all right now, though,” Harold continued.

“Harold, will you excuse me, please? I really must go powder my nose,” she said, extinguishing her cigarette.

“Your nose looks fine, Harrrlm.”

“Could you just order me a drink, Harold?”

She shot through the crowd like the little steel ball in a pinball machine, earning concerned stares for points as her silky hips ricocheted off people.

Harlem slumped onto a dark green chaise and deeply inhaled, welcoming the scent of cheap peach soap.

Dammit, Joe. Invitin’ stupid Harold. She leaned her head against the wallpaper adorned with dark green velvety designs that looked like they belonged on a French soldier’s uniform. A statuesque woman emerged from the bathroom and into the powder room, adjusting her fur wrap.

“You old enough to be in this joint, honey?” the woman asked.

“I’m nineteen. Thank you.” Harlem straightened herself. The woman adjusted her pearls and fur wrap.

“You look out of sorts, dear,” the woman said, chuckling as she smoothed her golden silk dress and left.

Harlem pulled herself to the mirror.

“What does she know, anyway?” she whispered as she tucked a curl in place and lifted her chin.

Harlem channeled Bette Davis as she returned to her spot at the bar.

Joe was patting Harold on the back heartily. Joe’s fedora covered one eye and cast a shadow over his chiseled, pecan-hued cheekbone. A dimple winked while his eye glistened with a kaleidoscope of charm. His lips—her favorite part—were simply pink and delicious. She sighed from the memory of kissing them and continued with her stroll.

“Hey, Joe,” she said, smiling next to him.

“Hey, Harlem,” Joe replied.

“Oh, so you two’s already knows each otha. I was lookin’ forward t’ introducin’ ya.”

Joe shuffled his feet and sipped from his bourbon.

“How ya been, Harlem?” he muttered, looking away.

How ya been? Harlem screamed to herself. Her insides became a trial. Her heel started to tap incessantly like a judge’s gavel.

Joe looked past her. Harlem followed his gaze to find the woman Harlem had just met in the powder room. The woman carried two glasses of champagne and handed one of them to Joe.

“Here you go, sugar. You’ve been over here so long with your little friends that our bubbles were starting to go flat,” she said, kissing Joe’s lips.

“My goodness, you don’t look any better now than you did in the powder room.” She laughed softly, moving towards Harlem. “You sure you’re alright?”

She rubbed Harlem’s back as though she were a child.

“I’m fine.” Harlem started breathing again and slid away from the woman abruptly, her heel silent.

“You all, this is Sarah,” Harlem heard Joe say. “Sarah, this is Harold and Harlem.”

“Don’t you two make a fine couple!” Sarah grinned broadly.

“Actually,” Harlem said, her face stretched to the limit, like a girdle. “Harold is my dear friend Cora’s boyfriend. I’m at the Cornett Lounge tonight, quite alone on invitation from Joe, here.”

“Really?” Sarah said, wiping her rouge residue from Joe’s pucker.

“Well, how long you two’s been knowin’ one ‘nother?”

“Gosh, Joe and I…” She stared hard at him. “How long’s it been, Joe?” She leaned against the bar, more so for support than for her movie-star effect.

“Not long.”

“Joe, you sure are amusing,” Harlem said as she turned her backside to him and called for Scotty. Just last night Joe had said some stuff and done some stuff to make her feel like it had been a lifetime. “He’s right.” Harlem’s voice hardened as she looked at their reflections in the mirror behind the bar. “It hasn’t been long at all.”

Sarah’s eyebrow arched as she took a sip of champagne.

“You’s got any more ‘a that champagne left? I sure could use a taste!” Harold said, rubbing his hands together.

Sarah coughed. “Certainly, Harold.”

Harlem stared at herself; a hollowed stranger stared back. She pressed her eyes closed and caressed her eyebrows with firm fingertips. She exhaled, hugging her heart with pillowed lungs. Harlem slowly opened her eyes. She caught Joe looking at her reflection.

Joe’s eyebrows rose, asking a question.

In response, her eyes darkened into an onyx fireball. At Lady Magdalena’s Manor, she’d been forced to give herself to men who desired her and paid Lady Magdalena handsomely for the privilege to do so. In some ways, Joe had been her first and now she regretted it. She aimed and fired her Molotov cocktail of shame. He flinched and withdrew. He turned to look at her once more before pulling his hat lower and walking off with Sarah and Harold to their champagne table.

“Harrrlm, you comin’?” Harold called back to her.

Harlem wasn’t sure what her answer should or would be. All she could surely say was, “Hey, Scotty, how about that drink?”

 

 

Peppur Chambers (@BrownBettie) is the author of novella, Harlem’s Awakening, and the dinner-theater burlesque show, Harlem’s Night, both of which feature the sultry, sassy, sophisticated characters, the Brown Betties.