Theresa stood at the bottom of five worn stone steps. Looking up at the brownstone, she read the small bronze plaque, mouthing the words silently. ‘Built in 1898’. A larger painted, wooden sign above announced ‘The Billie Holiday Institute’.
In just five upward steps Theresa would become Jolene Price, fledgling jazz singer – a mantle that seemed way too large and formidable to fit or to swallow over the large lump in her throat. She knew that, at least for this moment, Gus and Pete were watching from a rented delivery truck a half a block away and praying that she would be up to the task. As she placed her foot on the first step, she realized that that mantle of protection and the lifeline it represented, would soon be cut and left behind.
Gus had argued hard for Theresa to wear a wire but Lindy had explained that it might be too easily detected, what with the breathing techniques that would be initiated and also in the closeness of the living quarters that Theresa would be expected to share. So it was ruled out, much to Gus’s consternation.
Her small bag seemed heavier as she reached the door but taking a deep breath, Theresa entered a new world of uncharted territory, with only the fragmented map of Lindy’s details to guide her.
Upon entering, Theresa – Jolene – was struck with the sounds of music coming from each of the closed doors that lined the long hall. There, framed pictures and album covers of what must be Billie Holiday covered the walls. A lovely young woman sat behind a desk in the foyer and smiled as Theresa entered.
“Good afternoon. Welcome to ‘The Institute’. How may I help you?” she asked eyeing Theresa’s suitcase.
Theresa spoke her rehearsed information and was escorted into an office where a large woman looked up and with a smile said, “Welcome to our school. You must be the one who called from the bus station. Unfortunately, we’re between contests just now but if you’re still interested in studying here- and perhaps staying on for the contest- we’ll be glad to enroll you!”
‘Why, yes mam’ I am!” Theresa saved the rest of her explanation until it might be more necessary and took the application, carefully noting the ‘Next of Kin and Contact Information’ segments.
She produced a small purse and peeled off some bills, counting them out into the waiting Registrar’s hand. She was then handed a receipt and a booklet of explanations of the curriculum and directions to the nearby boarding house for students. It was official now, it seemed, and that meant ‘No Turning Back’….
Mrs. Echols, the Registrar, called for an assistant to come to the office and Theresa was introduced to a frail, young woman who would be her guide. “Jolene, this is Anna. She’ll show you around the class and practice rooms. We have a coffee and juice bar available but meals will be up to you. I’ll call and tell the boarding house that you’ll be checking in.” And with that, Mrs. Echols returned to her paperwork.
Anna babbled a list of Do’s and Don’ts as she opened the doors quietly to each room. Theresa was impressed at the musical dexterity and passion in the voices she heard as each door opened and closed. She was aware of just how much the practice of those Bach and Handel cantatas would come in handy and made a mental note to thank Father Joseph for insisting on performing them every year. Theresa also was aware that IF she got the chance to thank him for that, she would also have a lot more to thank him for…
Anna broke into Theresa’s unspoken prayer as she called to a young man as he was about to enter a vacant practice room. “Hey Tyrone, come meet Jolene – she’s a new student.”
Turning to Theresa she announced “Tyrone is one of our accompanists. He makes us all sound good!”
Theresa feigned a knowing smile and nodded. Tyrone smiled back and the ‘feigning’ seemed mutual.
It was then on to the boarding house; dormitory style, with three girls to a room and sitting room off the lobby for lounging and guests.
Theresa deposited her belongings in the assigned drawer and closet space and returned downstairs to meet her roommates who were listening to their recorded practice CDs, each grimacing or smiling at their assessment.
At a cursory glance, Theresa sized them up and they returned the compliment. Still, it was amiable and as they sent out for pizza and beer they all exchanged hometown nostalgia along with hopes and dreams for a glorious future worthy of their idol: Billie Holiday.
Morning came all too soon. Theresa had not rested well. Groggily she waited her turn at the communal bathroom. Almost late, she rushed to Orientation and then on to her assigned classes.
There had not been much chance for her ‘OK So Far’ cellphone call but she’d managed finally – fretful hours of pacing for Gus.
On the third day Theresa found herself escorted into a rehearsal room and was surprised to find the illustrious Tyrone waiting at the piano.
He looked up and asked, “OK, what’d’ya wanna do?”
Theresa finally figured out he meant what tunes and she slowly scanned the list to find the ones she and Lindy had practiced. With resolve she jumped into ‘Body and Soul’.
Tyrone played a long arpeggio and it was then indeed ‘Show Time’.
Forcing herself to sing behind the beat- not a natural choirlike response, but one Lindy had instructed her to do- Theresa allowed herself to relax into the lyrics and found it an oddly, ethereal moment.
Tyrone showed no expression and motioned her to come in at the bridge of the song. She hummed along until she felt it was the appropriate time and came back ‘Are you pretending? – It looks like the ending….’
Tyrone stopped playing and suggested a key change and soon, with the ding of a timer, it was time to move on to another class.
Four days under her belt and Theresa was beginning to wonder if this had been a wild goose chase. But that day’s rehearsal hour presented a whole new ballgame. She entered the empty practice room and waited for what she supposed would be Tyrone. However, a new face appeared and it was game on from there on out.
A sullen and disheveled young man looked up over smudged eyeglasses and then back again at a piece of paper on the piano.
“So, you’re, Jolene…” He stated in a foreign sounding accent. Theresa nodded.
“I’m Alex. – Tyrone is out for day. You still doing ‘Body and Soul?’ ”
Theresa nodded again and he began to play the intro.
More familiar with the tune and procedure, Theresa embellished the melody a bit and her accompanist looked pleased and grunted complimentarily.
From then on, it was all a perfusion of compliments and helpful suggestions.
Finally, came what Theresa was expecting: an invitation to visit The Jersey Club and former hangout of Lady Day herself– where ‘Jolene’ would be all too welcome to sit in with the band.
Alex’s face held a forced, encouraging smile- but his eyes seemed to tell a different story…
Theresa pretended hesitancy but finally agreed to accompany Alex to the club.
It was arranged for him to pick her up at the boarding house at 6:00 PM sharp.
One more class and she would have plenty of time to phone Gus…
As Theresa was rushing out of the building, Mrs. Echols called her back. It was ‘important’, she stated, ‘that each student give an assessment of their progress and satisfaction…’
“It’ll only take a minute” Mrs. Echols assured an anxious Theresa.
Searching in her desk, all the while receiving two long phone calls, Mrs. Echols finally produced the necessary form and Theresa checked off the ‘Excellent’ box in all the blanks without even reading them, trying to glance at her watch without being noticed.
It was after 5:30 PM when Theresa finally got to the boarding house only to find a fire drill in progress. With everyone milling around outside, it was impossible to place the check in call to her dad.
Finally, when calm was restored, Theresa ran to the bathroom. There were three people in front of her so she hurried to the stairwell- but no cell signal was available.
She returned to the lobby to ponder her options.
It was getting close now… Should she put Alex off for a more opportune time or chance placing a call to Gus–somehow, someway? Quite a slim chance but there may not be another- so she opted for the latter.
Alex arrived, right on time, his oily hair slicked back and wearing a slightly mildewed smelling jacket. Theresa gave an exasperated smile; explained her delay and asked him to wait until she put away her books and changed her shoes. His scowl and sigh were evidence of his displeasure but he nodded and Theresa started toward the boarding house.
A few steps away, she heard a voice calling out in the darkening light of early evening. It was Anna who came running toward the waiting young man…
“Alexei, Alexei!” She called out excitedly. He ran toward her shushing her as he went. He grabbed Anna by the shoulders, shaking her in exasperation and they both looked toward Theresa. Theresa pretended not to hear, rushing on with a wave.
Once inside, Theresa ran toward the back exit. Grabbing her cell, she phoned Gus as she hurried along. He answered immediately.
“Dad! It’s on and I’m on my way to Jersey.” She was about to fill in the details but she sensed someone behind her and turned to find Anna looking at her quizzically.
Theresa gulped hard and stammered, “I was just cancelling some Chinese food I’d ordered. Are you coming with us?” Theresa quickly tried to deflect the obvious. Anna nodded, her earlier warm, fragile demeanor now gone and replaced with a hardened suspicious one. She took Theresa’s elbow and moved them both out to the waiting Alex.
They motioned for Theresa to get in the back seat of a ‘60’s VW Beetle and together the trio headed for Jersey. A little pretense of ‘happy talk’ and in what seemed like hours, they pulled into an alley at the back of the notorious club. Theresa wondered if the dumpster was the very one that Lindy had described so ominously. The one that was almost her coffin. Theresa shuddered at the thought.
“This is it!” Alex forced a smile as he helped Theresa exit the VW. She could hear a small jazz combo playing as they entered a back door and then through a small, greasy kitchen.
Once inside the club Alex motioned Theresa to sit at the bar and said, “We have drinks now and you sing later…” Scowling, he asked the bartender in broken English, “Where is regular guy?”
Not looking up- and continuing to wipe the bar with a grimy towel- the bartender replied, “Food poisoning. Stupid brother!” and he shot a knowing look at Alex. Alex’s eyes narrowed and he stated in a deliberate tone, “Make it three ‘house specials’, OK?”
The bartender nodded and turned, setting three glasses at the back bar out of sight of Theresa and proceeded to pour from several bottles. He placed the drinks carefully in front of each of the three.
Alex made no pretense to pay for them – but he raised his glass as in a toast to Theresa and said, “To Jolene! Our next songbird”.
Theresa tried to fake a sip but Alex drank his in one swallow and tipped the back of Theresa’s glass forcing more into her throat. Laughing, he smirked, “Drink up, Songbird – you sing soon!”
As the room started to turn black, Theresa frantically reached for the bar to steady herself, as images of Lindy and her dad swam in her dizzying head.
The last sound she heard was Alex laughing softly and the band sounding tinny now- far away and out of tune.
She felt herself slide into a long dark tunnel and try as she might, she couldn’t fight it…
© copyright 2019 Laurie Allyn all rights reserved
Laurie Allyn is a professional jazz singer with a storied past. Singing in smoky clubs in Chicago during the 1950’s and 60’s, she went on to record an album in Hollywood. When the recording label went bankrupt, she turned her attention to professional modeling. Now living outside Seattle, she writes mysteries and continues her singing career.