“Skylark” – a short story by Allison Whittenberg

June 11th, 2024

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“Skylark”  was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 65th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.

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photo via PickPic

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Skylark

by Allison Whittenberg

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…..It was a turnout so good, you’d think church let out.  All these fine sisters were there and boy, were they ragged.  They ragged in royal blue silk, in white pleated silk, in mauve lace, in fuchsia with bold gold tone studs.  They wore hats of straw, of feathers and flower petals.

…..Such an array of faces … such an array. Everything from chalk to charcoal.

…..(Well, maybe not chalk, per say. Say a tan chalk.) There were thin-lipped dames with broad noses and broad-mouthed broads with thin noses and thin-framed women with big asses and big-busted girls with flat bottoms and flat-footed chicks with long legs and long limbs and foxes with babydoll feet.

…..What they all had in common was that these girls had their hair fried.

…..Some even had their hair fried and dyed. A few had what was fried and dyed laid to the side.

…..All this prep was for a big cause, for this had been a happening since Monday and this here was Thursday. The audition for the big time, or more accurately the semi-big time…Hell, frankly it was a gig. A job singing lead for a non-traveling band.

…..Nat King Coleman, not to be confused with the other guy, was the leader of the band. He was tall, dark, and handsome but unfortunately dead. The surviving band members figured they’d carry on. Do a little something-something in his memory. He had left his ex-paramour and present manager, Grace Deramus, in charge of things. Grace made a good chief with the exception that she allowed her best friend, Linda Lamb, to creep forth with judgmental input. Deep, pensive and sensitive commentary like, “Who the Hell ever told you you could sing? Whoever did must have been blind in the ears, Honey, cuz you sound plain and purely pitiful.”

…..The way things were stacking up that Thursday it didn’t look like things would go any differently (Linda hated everybody). Though the first customer to walk in looked promising …She had a promising tight dress and a cigarette between her fingers. The woman announced that she was Florence McNeil, like her name was already a household word and right off she started shouting out a “Don’t you know why there’s no sun up in the sky” with such fervor and confidence why the only thing that was missing was style, timbre and talent.

…..“Hold it! Hold it!” Linda called out.

…..“St-orm-y wea-ther…” She continued singing even after the music stopped short.

…..“Tell me, who usually sings that song?” Linda popped to her.

…..“Why Lena Horne, of course.”

…..“Well then do me a favor, Florence, and let her sing it from now on,” she advised the woman. She looked at Grace for confirmation.

…..Grace affirmed.

…..Linda looked square at Florence and called for the next applicant like she enjoyed it. Linda’s personality was so befitting telling young, earnest amateurs to go jump in the lake. She had that certain “Je ne sais quoi.”

…..The following girl who came in had plucked out eyebrows and a voice like a bird—a buzzard.

…..“You call that singing?” Linda asked her. “I’ve heard a cat choke sound more melodic than that. Get out of here before I call the voice police on you.”

…..The next girl was equally as wretched with a voice reminiscent of a burnt toast and rotten egg breakfast combo: lousy.

…..“Don’t call us,” Linda told the gal.

…..“Oh, then you will call me?” she asked hopefully.

…..“No,” Linda shook her head. “That’s not going to happen either.”

…..The girl walked out bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

…..The next chick did a rendition of “I Concentrate on You” that the rest of the band tried not to think about.

…..“You call that singing?” Linda cried out. “I got nothing out of it because you put nothing into it.”

…..The girl left the room in shame.

…..“She put something into that dress,” Bailey, the clarinetist, observed out loud.

…..Linda just  humphed  him. “Hiring a jazz singer because she’s got a cute figure is like marrying a woman because she’s good in bed.”

…..The band men all just sort of looked at Linda like they were in the process of missing the point. She peered over at Grace, the only other dame in the square, in search of some gender understanding, while all the fellahs were still on the “what’s wrong with that/sounds good to me” tip. Grace stepped in as only Grace could grace a conversation with. “It takes more than one spice to season a soup, gentlemen.”

…..Gentlemen, she called them, giving them the benefit of the doubt. She had learned her diplomacy well. You see, Grace was college educated, a rarity for her day. Tall, not much up top besides brains. She spoke with a proper accent that was genuine, it genuinely went with her upper crust background and breeding. Her family hailed from Connecticut and she had a pair of the most luminous pitch black eyes ever. She wore purple lipstick always.

…..On the other hand, Linda’s head was a dyed red. She was tiny-boned like Grace but short not tall. She had an elfin look on her 28-year-old face, a turned up nose and small deep slanting eyes. She didn’t wear any particular lip color.

…..Meanwhile, Grace’s words seemed to sink in with Bailey, the clarinetist, because he concluded after a great deal of thought,

…..“You’re right there,

…..Grace, don’t make no difference if the gal can work it in the bedroom just as long as she can cook.” He continued dropping his philosophy. “If you want to lead yourself a happy life, get yourself an ugly wife.”

…..“If that’s the case we should quickly snatch up Winifred Carlson,” Linda spoke up.

…..“Which one was she, I can’t rightly recall,” Charlie wondered.

…..“Weren’t but two ugly women that came in here all day and she was both,” Linda reported.

…..Bailey scratched his head and reminisced. “I recollect that Miss Carlson.  She’s the one with the green dress.”

…..“That’s one way to describe her.”

…..“How else? Weren’t nothing wrong with that woman.”

…..“Come on now. You’re lying and the truth ain’t in yaw’. That woman put the ugh! in ugly.”

…..“Now, why you want to say that about the broad?”

…..“Oh, so now you rather I front,” she  humphed, “that big baked potato-head-looking thing.”

…..“Linda…” Grace warned, as always when she sought to keep her friend from getting too degrading.

…..But it was too late. The girl was gone and sinking. “Man, chickee’s hair was so short if she braided it it would look like stitches—”

…..“So, to make a long story short, you don’t see her as having a long future in the music business.” Grace interrupted her.

…..“Listen, the only advice I got for that chick is to invest in a wig to cover up that protruding skull of hers so people will have to ask her what she thinks.”

…..“What?”

…..“Right now, her hair is so short you can read her mind.”

…..“Enough on her, you know who I likes is that Miss Rait.”

…..Linda, of course, had a shutdown for her. “Nobody wants that old broad.”

…..Bailey was 54 years old himself. Good looking, fit as a fiddle and ready for love (his five divorces proved that). “She wasn’t that old,” he mumbled in defense of the way-over-forty.

…..“She’s so old her last husband was Adam. But if you want to pick a moldy oldie go right ahead.”

…..“She’s right,” her brother, Sam Lamb agreed. “We want somebody young enough to shake it without breaking it.”

…..“I want someone young and spirited, yet old and settled,” Grace clarified, envisioning aloud. “Sweet yet with sass. Worldly yet old fashioned.”

…..“Obese yet wears a size 5,” Linda chided.

…..“A tall midget,” Sam Lamb supposed.

…..“How about someone who can sing?” Bailey inquired.

…..Grace shot him a sharp look. “Believe me, that’s secondary.” She told him confidently and without doubt. “Primarily, I want someone I can work on.”

…..She thought of how Napoleonic that sounded and softened it to: “I mean, we can all work with. So Nat King Coleman would be proud.”

…..“Well, I for one suggest we break for lunch,” Larry, the bassist, suggested.

…..Grace shook her head in disagreement. “Let’s try to fit a few more in.”

…..“Why, they’d sounding worse and worser the emptier my stomach gets,” he complained.

…..“The next girl who comes in—picture a cheeseburger.”

…..“Hey,” Sam said. “Make mine with onions.”

…..Linda remarked that she’d preview the next girl so: “Get ready to lose your appetite.”

…..Grace shook her head. “Be optimistic, I have an intuition in these next couple of girls we’ll find the one we want.”

…..Next came a string bean who was operatically trained.

…..“I think your intuition stinks,” Linda mourned.

…..Next came a statuesque woman who had only sung in the bathtub.

…..Next came a society dame who was slumming it.

…..Next came a shifty-eyed girl. She slunk into the room shaking like she’d had palsy.

…..“What’s your name?”

…..“Susan.”

…..“Susan, what?”

…..“I’d rather not say, I’m sort of wanted.”

…..Linda hipped her, “Not around here you ain’t.”

…..Next came another Grand Dame looking femme. “I used to be a dancer in a floor show,” said the rather portly miss. “So that’s what I consider myself, a dancer. I’m still waiting for an opening in the floorshow.”

…..Linda laughed. “When you start dancing I bet there’s an opening in the floor.”

…..“I heard that,” the irked woman spoke up and stepped over to Linda.

…..“Sorry sister. It’s been a long day, you know?” Samuel jumped in to save Linda from the approaching menace of a left hook.

…..“Well, even so this brazen woman doesn’t have to be so hostile and abusive towards me. I’ve been preparing for this all week. I’ve been up since five.”

…..“We’ve been up since early too, madam. We’re all a bit cranky.”

…..The woman’s scowl softened to a frown. “I can understand that it’s a long day for you too. Tell me when do you think I’ll hear from you?”

…..Linda smirked. “Try when Hell—”

…..The woman tried to ignore Linda. “I have another number if you want to sample my range.”

…..“Not if it involves your singing.” Linda kept the insults flying.

…..“You know you’re an awfully rude little person,” she told Linda, stomping over to her once again.

…..Linda gulped, feeling quite literally overshadowed. “Lighten up, I’m only joking.”

…..“I can take a joke as well as the next person. I love a good joke.”

…..“Oh, I know you love a good joke,” Linda agreed, “I can tell that by the size of your shoes.” She then ducked down behind her brother before the woman could take a swing at her.

…..“Well, I never.”

…..“Tell me something that would surprise me,” Linda almost shouted from over Sam’s shoulder.

…..Finally, the lady decided to pack it in and split the scene. Upon exiting however she did manage to get in one last dig on Linda which amounted to nothing more than a string of explicative—but boy was it ever strung.

…..“Let’s take a break,” Grace suggested if for no other reason than to relieve the ringing in their ears.

…..“Want me to go out and shoo the girls away?” Linda volunteered like she had had enough.

…..“No, Linda. I’ll do it. I need some fresh air,” Grace said tactfully—always tactfully.

…..Grace went out and told the girls to come back later. They grumbled but dispersed peacefully.

…..There was one girl who stayed on, however, coming at Grace while everyone else was going. She had the large brown eyes of an adoring spaniel and a smiley expression even though she hadn’t smiled once. She was a creamy-pecan colored woman in an ill-fitting dress which was lime green and ugly and made her face look all the more ugly.

…..“Boy, you got some power there girl. You’re just like Moses parting the Red Sea.”

…..“Moses?”

…..“Yea, ain’t he the one that done did that trick? Or was he the one who could still get it up after 900 years?”

…..Grace’s face strained with thought, not so much in guessing Biblical trivia but more in studying this girl. There was something about her she could definitely use. “No, no that’s Methuselah. You were right the first time,” Grace nodded. “It was Moses who parted the Red Sea.” This woman was definitely usable, Grace was certain now. She asked her her name.

…..“Bear,” the woman told her. She couldn’t have been more than 25. Like a wildflower. Young. Pretty, in an off-beat kind of way. Uncultured, but collectable all the same.

…..“Would you excuse me?” Grace asked her, and she ran back into the studio as if she was bursting with caffeine.

…..“Don’t pack up,” she told them.

…..They groaned as if she was stepping on their feet.

…..She went back outside and got Bear.

…..“Who’s that?” Bailey asked.

…..“I think it’s the ghost of fashion past!” Linda called out. “Dig those mules!”

…..“Bear, this is the band,” Grace introduced her.

…..Well, well, Bear … is that spelled B-e-a-r or B-a-r-e?” Bailey, the clarinetist, stepped up to ask her. He offered her his hand to shake.

…..Bear did, hiking up one side of her dress. It didn’t help—the other side just fell off her shoulder.

…..Smitten as well, Sam Lamb broke in with a “How do you do, Miss Bear?”

…..Bear smiled at him briefly. IT was a brief, yet memorable connection.

…..“What songs do you know, sugar?” Larry asked her.

…..“Songs?”

…..“Yea, what can you sing?”

…..“Well, let’s see … um,” she cocked her head to the side. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” came to her mind firstly, and secondly she said, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” She told them and they just looked at each other.

…..“Take it from the downbeat,” Grace said. “A one and a two and—” she cued her.

…..“Hold it, hold it—what’s a downbeat?” Bear asked.

…..They ignored her bafflement and played on. Bear missed two segues but joined in on the third. She had somewhat heard the song they were playing.

…..It was Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark,” a song so melodic and simplistic anyone could sing it well. Bear however sang it better than that. To their surprise and her own, there was a wonderful clearness, a pretty sort of concentrated cello voice with all those wonderful soprano surprises. Then she dropped it.

…..“Why did you stop, you were doing so well?” Grace asked her.

…..Bear waved her hand. “Aw, I only know pieces of the next verse.” She looked around to the rest of the group and promised, “Next time I hear that thing on the jukebox, I’ll be sure and ear in more closely … Sorry, I got you’ll wound up. You’ll sounded pretty strong there. You been playing’ long?”

…..“For a while,” Grace told her. Obviously Bear was playing it cool, Grace suspected. Could anyone really never have heard of Nat King Coleman?

…..“So, like you’re a group?” Bear asked them flat out.

…..They nodded to her as if to say “dah”.

…..“Now, that’s heavy.” She looked about the room grinning rather bovinely.

…..Then she stood up again and every male in the room could see how large and lusty she was in the hips and bosom.

…..Even Grace could nod, “Yes, yes, I think you will work out.”

…..Bear spun around and asked, “Just what do you mean by that?”

…..“Why, as our featured singer, of course.”

…..“Get out of Dodge.”

…..“No, not at all. I am sure we can work with you.”

…..“Well, I ain’t sure I want to be worked with.” Bear took the position rather firmly.

…..Grace was flapped a bit by this petulance. “You don’t want to be a singer?”

…..“Hell, naw. Good God! Is that what this is all about?” she exclaimed.

…..Everyone stared at her.

…..“Holy shit! I ain’t gonna be nobody’s singer. No, no, not me. Get somebody else. Good God! I’m getting out of here right now.” She made a dash for the door.

…..“Jez, you’d think we asked her to pick cotton,” Bailey humphed.

…..“Wait just a minute!” Grace caught her before she left. “You do need a job, don’t you?”

…..“I sure Enough do sure Enough,” she agreed. “But I ain’t never said nothing About no singing now. Never. No! No!”

…..“This is a band; we asked you to audition.”

…..“You ain’t said nothing About auditioning, you just asked me to sing.”

…..“Bear, how else do you audition for a band except by singing?” Bailey  broke it down for her nice and slow.

…..“What in the world else were you doing outside with all the rest of the gals?”

…..“I saw a crowd and thought you were giving away something. Sam Lamb slapped his hand to his forehead in utter disbelief.

…..“Bear, tell me this isn’t true.”

…..“Listen, you’ll, I gotta go catch a bus.”

…..And like that she left the room.

…..Bailey hung his head. “There goes the best catch we netted all week.  Did you dig that contralto she had? It was enough to make you cry.”

…..“… So is slicing an onion,” Linda chimed in, a little long between insults.

…..“I’m going after her,” Sam volunteered.

…..“Jeeeeeeesus, look down here and show me strength!” Linda cried out.

…..“Brotherman, why in the Hell are you gonna chase her down?”

…..“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.” Sam spoke hazily, yearningly. “I  can’t describe it in words, all I know is that she moves me…” And then he beat it, and hit the streets frantic for her.

…..“She moves you? She moves you?” Linda called out past the wide open door.

…..“That’s nothing, you could get that from a bottle of prune juice.”

…..Meanwhile, Bear was walking lazily down Lexington; she was no trouble to locate.

…..“How did you get a name like Bear?” Sam called after her.

…..She almost didn’t turn around.

…..But then she did. “It’s short for Beryl.” She faced him. On top of the sorry looking dress, she also had free formed-hair. She explained her namesake further as she re-pinned. “You know the name Cheryl? Well, it’s Exactly like that, sorta.”

…..Sam was smiling at her and she felt a twinge of guilt. “I ain’t mean to be snip with you’ll music people and rush out on you’ll like that but I want to make it clear that I ain’t interested.”

…..Sam nodded and pried, “But you do want a job, right?”

…..“Well, yea, but not just any job,” she spoke before thinking. Her pecan complexion reddened a little. She gulped. “That didn’t come out right.”

…..“It’s alright, I’m used to rejection,” he smiled at her. Horrible name, poorly dressed, awful hairdo, yet somehow lovely all the same. He liked her.

…..“Mind if I ask you just what do you want out of life?”

…..“I want to shine shoes.”

…..“What?”

…..“I am a shoe shine boy, by profession.”

…..At that, Sam burst out laughing.

…..“Laugh all you want. I make good money.”

…..“Oh, I can imagine,” he humored her. “Nickels upon nickels.”

…..“Never mind the income, the work’s just damn steady. I heard all about your traveling bands and it ain’t a pretty picture,” Bear spoke up. “I can see it all now. All of it—good God! Five freakin’ frakin’ weeks of rehearsal, one lousy week of pay. Eating’ diner food and’ playing’ in Cleveland.”

…..“Well, we don’t do any of that stuff, Bear, we’re stationary. Nat King Coleman owned a supper club and we played there exclusively so there is no Cleveland and no diner food, we get to order right off the menu. Filet mignon, Lobster Newberg, anything you like.”

…..She crinkled up her face in a grin. “How about a rump roast the size of my ass?”

…..He took a longing look at the back of her dress and told her, “I am almost positive that it can be arranged.”

…..“So, I guess since good eats serve as pay, right?”

…..“No, pay serves as pay.” He pulled out a fifty and handed it to her.

…..“Take this as your first week’s salary.”

…..“Ain’t you mean month’s?”

…..“No, I mean week’s.”

…..   “This bill ain’t real.”

….. “Bear, it’s real.”

…..  “Do you want me to take off my clothes?”

…..  “No…Well, not unless, you know, you really want to.”

…..   “This bill is not real!” She held it up to the sun and looked for counterfeit marks. She also spit on it to see if the ink smeared.

…..Everything checked.

“You see, Nat King Coleman’s people are on the up and up, Miss Beryl. We wouldn’t want to cheat you or take advantage of you in any way. We just want to give you your due. It’s only right, Bear, after all you know what they say about a bird in the hand.”

…..Bear shrugged and slipped the fifty into her brassiere. “I don’t know what they say about a bird in the hand, but it sounds awful messy.”

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Born in Philadelphia and educated in New York and Wisconsin, Allison Whittenberg is an award winning novelist and playwright. Her poetry has appeared in Columbia Review, Feminist Studies, J Journal, and New Orleans Review. Whittenberg is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Driving with a Poetic License and They Were Horrible Cooks are her collections of poetry. Her favorite singers are Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, and Lee Wiley.

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