Type of Girl

— Peppur Chambers

It wasn’t until the top of her third drink that Harlem finally started to feel the warm, brown-velour blanket known as “Scotch-n-Soda” wrap itself around the chilling ache in her heart.

Harlem set her glass on the bar and swirled her ice cubes as though they were tea leaves. Finding no answers there, she slowly lifted her gaze and met her own eyes in her reflection in the large oval mirror above the bar etched with “The Coronett Lounge.” She didn’t like the woman she saw in the mirror. The smart chapeau with the black netting didn’t hide the grit of a nineteen year-old girl who’d killed her abusive father and lost her mother to suicide. The silk skirt she loved didn’t soothe the fact, while she was now “free,” that she’d been captured into Lady Magdalena’s manor and forced to do things with gentlemen that she didn’t want to do. The Iced Ruby Red lipstick that perfectly highlighted her pouty lips wasn’t enough stain to cover her shame. This is what she was trying to overcome, and to get to being the woman she wanted to be. One who could handle being with Joe.

Harlem swiveled on her bar stool and focused on Joe, the poker of her pain, as he played through his second set. She watched his brown nimble fingers tickle the upright bass as he accompanied an animated woman swinging through “Is you Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” Her blue dress swam with sequins that boomeranged a rainbow of light into the audience as she swayed to the rhythm of the band.

“Would you like to dance?”

Harlem looked toward the source of the deep voice close to her ear. A handsome soldier with skin like glazed caramel smiled at her with gleaming white teeth. “Thank you, Soldier. I’m spoken for,” Harlem lied as she smiled politely.

“If you were my gal, no way I’d leave you alone for fellas like me to admire you,” he said as he tipped his Garrison hat and returned to his table of soldiers.

“Spoken for,” Harlem laughed to herself. Only an hour ago, when she’d first arrived at the Cornett Lounge to see Joe, she’d thought she was “spoken for.” Last night, when she was in Joe’s arms, she truly thought she’d been spoken for, among other things.

“Ha!” rumbled from her chest and burst through her lips. Harlem abruptly turned to the bar, away from stupid Joe and his stupid bass and back into the arms of her scotch. She finished the Scotch and allowed the ice cubes to tumble into her mouth. “What am I still doing here?” she crunched angrily. Her head was starting to spin, making it hard for her to answer herself. A tap on her shoulder interrupted.

“I said, I’m spoken for!” Harlem garbled through her ice as she spun to address her tapper.

“Are you, now?”

It was Sarah. Stupid Joe’s stupid Sarah. Perhaps the real reason for her misery.

“I thought you were someone else,” Harlem returned to the bar, tipping her empty glass for any lasting sip of salvation.

“I’m surprised you’re still here, honey.” The words seeped from Sarah’s sophisticated mouth in not quite a question but more like a toned-down reprimand as she smoothed her gown, waiting.

“The night is still young.” Harlem replied to the woman who was at least five years older than she, and with much more experience.

“If you say so.” Sarah nodded to Scotty, the bartender.

“You ordering more champagne cocktail for you all?” Harlem asked with bitterness disguised as politeness because she didn’t have the balls to be a bitch.

“Your dear of a friend, Harold, just poured himself the last drop.”

Harlem smiled to herself. She glanced over her shoulder at Harold, her best friend, Cora’s boyfriend. Harold slapped his large, clumsy hands on his knees in time with the rhythm of Joe’s bass. He looked like he was sitting around a campfire with a banjo rather than at a jazz club. Even though it was only The Coronett. Harold had become her ally and he didn’t even know it. Quite by coincidence, he’d ended up at The Coronett tonight to see Joe also. Harlem didn’t even know that he knew Joe. When Joe escorted Sarah to their table instead of her, Harold had joined them, and Harlem had stayed at the bar to do whatever it was she was doing now.

Sarah continued, “I’m actually getting myself a little something else. Can I interest you in a martini?”

A martini? Harlem would have preferred a rope. “I’d love a martini.”

“Smart girl,” Sarah replied.

They waited a spell for Scotty to deliver. The silence between them hovered like a hungry hawk patiently circling a lush field.

Sarah coughed discretely, “Good crowd tonight, isn’t it?”

“Sure is.”

“They all come to see Joe,” Sarah leaned against the bar, clasping her cream-colored hands over her lean, taught stomach.

They both shifted their gaze and female attention to Joe as he played on stage. His head was bent low and his hat had fallen dangerously from its usual perch on his head. Knowing Joe, he probably willed the hat to stay put, and it listened, respectfully. His smooth chin was the only visible part of his extraordinary face. He was bathed in pale yellow candlelight and the swing notes he played seemed to dance around him, through him like exotic indigo, gold, and crimson butterflies.

“He sure is a dream, wouldn’t you say?” said Sarah.

“Well…” Harlem stalled.

Scotty presented their drinks. “Doesn’t this look divine?” Sarah delicately slid a chilled martini Harlem’s way with fingertips dripping in shiny crimson polish and adorned with one delicate pearl ring. She smiled cunningly.

“Divine,” Harlem stood and returned the loaded smile slowly feeling the rope making its way around her own neck instead of Sarah’s.

“Salute,” Sarah said as she sipped her martini with a familiarity of which Harlem was slightly jealous.

Harlem awkwardly fumbled her glass to her mouth, watching Sarah over the top of the glass as she did so. The hooch she’d had before was having an effect on her. “Salute,” She mumbled.

Sarah licked her lips, returned her attention to Joe, and continued softly, “So handsome.”

Harlem leaned against the bar and turned back to Joe. He was more than handsome. And he should have been hers. Because he had been hers first. At least in a way that meant something to her. “Mmmmm….Hmmm.”

“And wonderfully talented in…so many ways. Wouldn’t you agree?” Sarah slid her honeyed gaze Harlem’s way. It landed deep in the center of Harlem’s own deep, amber eyes.

Neither shifted. Neither strayed.

“So many ways?” Harlem said, smoothing her dark hair behind her ear. “Yes, I s’pose I’d have to agree with you, Sarah.”

Sarah leaned in toward Harlem, smoothing Harlem’s hair even more as she whispered in Harlem’s ear: “You’ve just confirmed you’re the type of girl who would.”

Harlem’s chin trembled, she bit her Iced Ruby lip until she tasted blood as she watched Sarah raise the glass and slide the remaining martini down her thin wretched throat like an oyster falling from its shell. Sarah licked her lips, gave Harlem a demeaning kiss on the cheek and smiled, “See ‘ya around, sugar.”

“Well, Gosh Damn, what’d ‘ya say next?!” Her best friend, Cora, whispered quite loudly, which was highly inappropriate since they were sitting in church. Cora was the best friend any girl could have; especially a girl like Harlem. Cora could keep a secret like nobody’s business; she could eat as many ice cream sodas as were needed to get through an entire story about the worst (or the most loveliest) date; and she could and would tell an officer the best, most convincing lie to save your ass. Not that either of them had ever gotten into that kind of trouble, but it was a good quality just the same, and now here she was in church, swearin’ like a sailor. Harlem loved her.

Harlem was about to lean in and tell Cora what happened next when Barbara Jones, her neighbor, gave her the stink eye from a few seats over. Not wanting her business overheard, Harlem scribbled on the inside cover of her bible: I SLAPPED HER!

Cora screamed with glee, “YOU WHAAAT?!”

This was too much. Pastor Gordon stopped mid-sermon, and said, “Since Sister Harlem and Sister Cora are so easily moved by today’s word, perhaps they’d like to help me teach it to the youth in Wednesday’s bible study?” Nearly everyone in the very small congregation turned to glare at Cora and Harlem…’cept for those who already knew turning their necks was a waste of time. This wasn’t the first time they’d been called out.

Cora whispered, “This church is the last stop before hell and these folks wanna look at us.”

Cora stood, bowed her head slightly, and said, “Pastor Gordon, please forgive me. I’m not sure what has come over me. Or Harlem. I think it would be best for us to leave so we can find out what has possessed us. C’mon Harlem.”

Once outside in the cool, crisp air and once their giggles shrunk from breath-stealing hysterics to manageable whimpers, Harlem’s turned to tears. “Oh my Lord. I was so humiliated. And mad. And annoyed. And embarrassed. How could she set me up to see if I’d been with Joe and then when I admit I had, she turns around and says ‘I’m the type of girl’ who would divulge that kind of information?!” Harlem cried.

“Clearly the girl has got some kind of finesse that you are sorely lacking. What’d she do after you slapped her?

“I didn’t slap her, Cora. I sat there frozen like a damn idiot ‘til Bartender Scotty poked me on my shoulder and asked if I’d seen a ghost.” Harlem sobbed. “I can never go back to The Coronett Lounge!”

“Oh, yes you can,” Cora announced. “And you will. But first we gotta figure out who this ‘Sarah’ is and why Joe thinks he can treat you with such low regard by bringin’ her ‘round the same night he told you to come by. I mean, really!”

“Maybe, maybe he was…?” Harlem was too distraught to finish her sentence.

“’Maybe nothin’, honey. Joe was the one who done wrong. Like I said, he shouldn’t have invited you on the same night he had another woman on his arm. That’s downright rude and very ungentlemanly-like.”

Cora thought for a moment. She looked at Harlem. Harlem looked back at her.

“What?” Harlem asked, dabbing at her tears with a handkerchief.

“You know what I’m about to say,” chided Cora.

“Sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Yessss, you dooooo!” Cora started to pretend like she was Sherlock Holmes and held an imaginary magnifying glass up to Harlem’s slightly shiny forehead.

Harlem ducked and flicked a handkerchief at her, “I imagine that whatever you’re lookin’ for is not goin’ to be found in the refined pimples on my forehead.”

Cora said, “I ain’t lookin’ at your pimples, Harlem. We have more important things to examine, like—”

“—Liiiike what?”

“Like your little pea brain and why it allows you to even still like Joe in the first place.”

Cora’s question, while completely relevant, was in no way what Harlem wanted to hear at that particular moment. She grunted in disgust to signify she thought so.

“You making sounds like a pig is not enough to make me stop from making you look at yourself, dear friend. You are a beautiful woman. You are smart, you’re quite funny, sometimes, and you wear hats very well. Better than most, I figure. So, we really need to start looking at why you like Joe so much.” Cora walked on ahead. “He can’t be that good!”

“Well, he is quite nice,” Harlem stopped to place the handkerchief in her pocketbook. Harlem looked up, “Cora? Cora?” They’d found their way out of the neighborhood and onto 125th street where the colored folks of Harlem swirled about them like ants in suits and fedoras.

Harlem ran and caught up to Cora; she took a glance at herself in the storefront to Alberta’s Always Good Bakery. She did wear a hat well. She was pretty. She was smart. So why did she like Joe so much? Harlem thought. She blurted aloud, “Is it because he’s so bad and I’m so good?”

“That sounds like a load ‘a shit!” laughed Cora as she bought some peanuts from a street vendor. “Although, maybe there is some truth to it. Why don’t we ask Joe what he thinks about your hypothesis?”

Harlem figured Cora was meaning that they’d do something silly like go by Joe’s bachelor apartment and sit on his comfy couch and ask him straight out. Harlem figured wrong. Joe was literally twenty feet in front of Cora coming out of a tobacco shop. Harlem had no time to hide. Cora wouldn’t have let her anyway.

“Why isn’t he in church?” Harlem spat.

“Cause he’s a heathen just like you an’ me.” Cora smiled slyly, quite possibly showing every tooth she had in her head and drawled, “Heeeyyy Joe!”

Joe looked at Cora, then at Harlem, then across the street towards the corner tap and Dolly’s Diner like he was lookin’ for a place to escape. Clearly, that was not going to happen.

Joe blurted, “Harlem, what has gotten into you?!”

Harlem threw her hand to chest and whined, “Meeee?”

Cora joined in, “What the hell you talkin’ ‘bout Joe? Are you simple or somethin’? You invited Harlem down to see you and she thought you meant somethin’ by that ‘cause most boys mean somethin’ when they do somethin’ like that and then all of a sudden there’s this other dame there servin’ you—and my boyfriend Harold—a load of champagne!” Cora was circling Joe; she was on a roll. “Why, I’d like to ask, what has gotten into YOU, Joe?”

A vein in Joe’s neck bulged as he jabbed his finger toward Cora, “Why you gotta tell her everything, Harlem?”

Harlem could barely get out an utterance of a tiny syllable before Cora answered, “Harlem didn’t have to tell me nothin’! When Harold got to my place, naturally I’m to ask him why he reeks of low down spirits when I know damn well he ain’t got nearly enough dough for as much sweet juice as he smelled like. When he said some woman named Sarah bought it, well then, again, NATURALLY I’m to ask who this ‘Sarah’ is and he tells me she’s a friend of yours, Joe.” Cora jammed her hands on her waist. “Who is Sarah and why she buyin’ champagne cocktails for the whole bar?”

Harlem stared at her dear friend and smiled. She loved Cora. She really did.

“If you must know, and I know you must, Cora, Sarah is a woman who hires musicians—such as myself—to play in the studio.” Joe lit a cigarette he pulled from behind his ear. He took a long drag and blew out the smoke in a big huff as he continued. “For big bands, too. Like Louis Jordan and Mr. Nat King Cole. For money. Real money! Not the measly pay I make at Grand Central hauling folks’ bags. Nor the chump change I make playing at The Coronett!”

Harlem stepped forward and hooked arms with Cora, “So what you’re saying, Joe, is that she came there for professional reasons, not personal.”

“That is what I’m sayin’, Harlem,” Joe said. “Had you stuck around, I woulda told you that.”

“Hmmm.” Cora mused. “How’d you meet this silky-smoothy Sarah?”

“I met her at The Coronett last week. She was there to see some other cats and approached me. She was fine, so – oh.” Joe looked like he swallowed a raw egg.

Cora pulled Harlem by the arm, nearly pulling it out the socket. “C’mon Harlem. We don’t need to hear no more right now. Good day, Joe.”

Harlem felt a warm breeze fall over her cheeks, around to the back of her neck and down her spine. Maybe it was her dignity returning. As it travelled around to her belly and below her navel, she knew it was something else. She stumbled after Cora but not before she turned and got a good look at Joe.

Harlem knew for sure she needed her head examined, because in spite of everything, she secretly hoped this wouldn’t be the last time she’d see him.

 


 

Nearing 10 years in Los Angeles via New York and Chicago, Peppur has seen success as a writer, producer, actor, dancer, and singer. As a playwright, Peppur has written Harlem’s Awakening (novella), Harlem’s Night Cabaret (dinner theater), The Build UP (site-specific theater), Dick & Jayne Get A Life, House Rules, (full-length stage plays), as well as Flapjacks & Orange Juice and I See, both one-acts.

 

Peppur’s non-fiction essay, Three-Way appears in Ava Chin’s Split: Stories from a Generation Raised on Divorce. She wrote a book of short stories based on her first two years of living in L.A., titled, Making Lemonade: Bittersweet Tales from an Actress Being Squeezed in LA and has a column in Humor Mill Magazine.

 

While in Chicago, she performed for thousands as a World Champion Chicago Bulls dancer and sites this experience as a turning point in making a bee-line ascent toward her dreams. The Marquette University graduate and Kenosha, Wisconsin native is determined to further her career in her L.A. surroundings.