Ariel gave the front door of the King of the Sea nightclub a resentful glance as she walked past it, her well-worn trenchcoat pulled tight against the cloying New Orleans November night. The day had been overcast, and the damp chill sank right into her bones. What she wouldn’t give for a little sunshine on her face.
She minced her way up to the door marked Deliveries and banged on it with her fist. When no one answered after several seconds, she knocked harder, flattening her palm against the door to keep from bruising herself.
The door swung open suddenly, making her take a stumbling step back to avoid getting hit in the face.
“It’s about time you got here, girl,” Louis the cook growled at her, waving her in with a gesture of his butcher knife. Little pieces of minced vegetable went flying, and Ariel ducked past him as quickly as she could. “They’re waitin’ for you on the bandstand.”
She wanted to—but didn’t—point out that she could’ve gotten to the bandstand a lot quicker if they had just let her come in the front door. She shed her trenchcoat backstage and double-checked her dress before she went out front. The heart-shaped bodice had fresh new sequins, so she wasn’t really worried about that, but the flare of the mermaid skirt had undergone an emergency repair that afternoon, and she wanted to make sure there weren’t any loose threads that could trip her up. Dammit, there was one.
“Ariel, girl, get your shapely little mermaid tail out here before they decide to fry you up to go with the jambalaya!”
It was Sebastian, the conductor for the band, his red suit shimmering in the spotlights as he poked his head through the curtain.
“I’m hurryin’!” Ariel groused, pulling the skirt up to her teeth to bite the thread off. “Keep your pants on, Mr. Crabby.”
“You’ll be thinkin’ crabby when you’re sleepin’ with the fishes, little girl. C’mon.” He waved his conductor’s baton at her threateningly, but she just rolled her eyes as she ascended the stairs. She strolled on to the stage to the sound of polite applause, and Sebastian made his way to the microphone, thickening his Creole accent to the point of ridiculousness. Even Ariel could barely understand him—but it was what the club’s patrons expected.
“Ladies and gentlefolk, we at King of the Sea are pleased to present to you our very own siren—Ariel!”
Ariel stepped up to the microphone and opened her mouth and did the only thing that ever made her feel completely free: she sang. She sang until all she knew was herself and the music, the soaring, unfettered feeling of taking a song inside herself and sending it back out through her diaphragm and throat and mouth, over her painted lips and out to the people who thought they were better than she was.
You may have whiter skin than me, and you may get to come in the front door, but you will never, ever know what this feels like. You will never know how it feels to be free, because only I know that—only me and this music.
And when the last note faded away and she had to come sinking back slowly to the floor, she barely saw Sebastian out of the corner of her eye, giving her a sad look. He knew her dreams, as much as she tried to pretend she didn’t have them, and when the spotlight faded and the house lights came up, he patted her shoulder gently as he walked past.
The band was packing up their instruments, and Ariel found herself standing in the middle of the stage, just feeling lost, when she heard a throat being cleared below her.
She looked down to find a rotund white man in a three piece purple suit, his fedora cocked on his head like a gangster’s.
“Good evenin’, Mr. Orson,” she greeted him cordially, even while chills slipped down her back, raising gooseflesh. Hans Orson was the owner of the Sea Witch, a ritzy nightclub just a street over that was the King of the Sea’s primary competitor. “Can I help you?”
“Just seein’ if you’re ready to come join my collection of stars or if you’re happy workin’ for pennies over here.”
She laughed, hoping it sounded lighter than she felt. “Mr. Orson, don’t you ever quit? I got it good here. I ain’t goin’ over there just because you’re feelin’ a little short on talent.”
“I got somethin’ I think you’re gonna want, though,” he said, and he looked so confident that even her scoff didn’t shake him. “Come on down here and have a drink with me, and we’ll talk about it.”
Now that was just cruel. Orson knew she couldn’t step on that floor—especially not to have a drink. His club had the same rules as the King of the Sea, and he knew her skin, light though it was, was too brown for them to let her anywhere in this club that wasn’t on the stage or in the kitchen.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Forgive me, girl. It’s just you’re so light, I forget sometimes. You mulattos always do have the prettiest skin—just like coffee with good, rich cream.”
Ariel fought the urge to cover herself; it wouldn’t do any good. There were miles of light brown skin exposed by her sequined dress, and trying to cover any of it would just let him know he’d gotten to her. She tried not to sneer.
“Well since I can’t have a drink with you here or at your place or anywhere else in New Orleans, why don’t you just tell me what you want.”
“I got a man in Las Vegas, a gamblin’ buddy, says he needs some pretty new faces and voices for his record company. Prince Records—sellin’ them new-fangled long play records. And girl, I got to tell you, I got some good talent, but none of ’em sing like you, and ain’t a single one as pretty as you. I’d like you to come to my club next Saturday night and sing. That’s when the record guy’s gonna be there.”
She blinked at him, feeling her mouth drop open in shock. “And what do you get out of this?” she demanded.
“Why, the warm feelin’ of knowin’ I helped a young woman reach her full potential! And, of course, a tidy finder’s fee.”
“Of course.” She bit her lip, and Orson just smiled at her, a limp, sad expression that somehow reminded her of a beached jellyfish.
“No need to decide now, my dear. You’ve got three days.” Before she quite knew what he was about, he reached up and patted her leg through her skirt, pausing to squeeze her ankle. She barely caught herself before she kicked him, knowing it would land her in a heap of trouble, but at the moment even being charged for assaulting a white man sounded like it would settle more easily in her stomach than letting his hand linger there.
When he finally let go and lumbered to the door, she imagined she could see him leaving a trail of slime behind himself, and she shuddered. She was still shaking as she wrapped herself back in her trenchcoat and prepared to leave, but she was startled by a hand on her shoulder at the Deliveries door. She turned to see Sebastian giving her a worried look.
“Miss Ariel, I ain’t tryin’ to tell you what to do, but you know you got a good deal here with Big Daddy. It ain’t perfect, but it’s a far sight better than what you’ll find most anywhere else. You think twice before you go messin’ with that.”
“I will, Sebastian.” She sighed. “I will.”
Saturday night, Ariel got dressed in the nicest dress she owned, a clingy number in shirred white satin with the flared mermaid skirt she was so famous for. It had fake diamonds all the way up her thighs and sprinkled liberally across her breasts, and she had to admit the damn dress made her feel like a princess. All she was missing was a crown. She fixed her hair in soft waves around her face, patted powder on her cheeks and painted her lips red, and then she telephoned Adella.
She started coughing as soon as Adella answered, making her voice rough and scratchy. “I woke up this mornin’ and lost my voice. I bet it’s from bein’ out so late in the cold this week. Please, Adella, can you make it up for me just this week? I promise I’ll cover one of your nights next week, when I’m feelin’ better.”
Adella sighed. “You know Big Daddy wants you on the stage on Saturday nights. What makes you think he’s gonna even let me up there to sing?”
“Because you’re good too, Adella. C’mon, please, help a sister out. This could be your big break!”
Adella’s sigh was loud and crackly over the telephone line, but she finally said, “All right. But you owe me, you hear?”
“Cross my heart, ’della. Thank you!”
Then she picked up her little handbag, put on her trenchcoat, and went to the Sea Witch.
The smile on Orson’s face when he saw her almost sent her running straight back to Big Daddy, to tell him that she’d been miraculously healed and could go on tonight after all, but she straightened her spine and put one foot in front of the other. She just about fell over when he opened the front door and gestured ahead of himself.
“Ladies first, my dear.”
Her heart was pounding when she walked through. There was a catch—there had to be a catch.
Orson escorted her into the club, taking her coat from her at the door and hanging it on the coat rack. “Mr. Jetsam is right over here, dear, and he’s just dying to meet you. You’ll still have to sing, of course—he won’t know if he wants to sign a contract with you before he hears you sing—but he’s already heard so much about you.”
Ariel stepped forward and gave the brightest smile she could. “Good evenin’, Mr. Jetsam. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Yes, yes, I see what you mean, Orson,” he said, not acknowledging Ariel or the hand she held out in front of her.
Awkwardly, she tucked her arms back against her body, her breath coming in shallow pants now. Surely any minute now someone was going to notice there was a colored woman on the main floor of the club and was going to ask her to leave, even if the owner was standing right there. There were laws about these things in New Orleans.
But Jetsam was still talking. “She is quite lovely, isn’t she? I wasn’t sure I believed you that a colored woman could look so white, but just lighten her hair a bit, maybe powder her skin a little for pictures, and I think it could work.”
Ariel’s whole body went cold and her whole world narrowed to this one point, these two men talking about her just like she wasn’t there, talking about stripping her world from her.
“Sweetheart,” Mr. Jetsam said, turning to her at last. “Can you smooth out your voice when you sing? Maybe stay in the higher registers and not so much down in those soul notes?”
“Do you mean to ask me,” she said as sweetly as she could, “can I sound like I’m white?”
“Yes!” He snapped his fingers, looking gleeful, and she felt sick to her stomach. She could almost see Sebastian shaking his head, telling her to give up on her silly butterfly dreams. She had wanted to walk in their world, but she wanted to do it on her own terms, not theirs. They had no right to ask her for this—to change her voice, to change her skin, to change her.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jetsam,” she said, shivering so much from fear her teeth were chattering. She clenched her jaw until she could get it under control and then continued. “Mr. Orson, I apologize. I’m grateful for the opportunity—” She paused, waiting for the nausea to abate. “But I don’t think that will be possible.”
She stalked away from them as quickly as she could without looking like she was running. She could hear their shocked, outraged voices behind her, calling out to her, but she didn’t stop. She grabbed her coat off the rack as she passed, not slowing down until she was out the door and down the sidewalk, until the stitch in her side made her stop to gasp for air, bracing herself against the side of a building.
She heard footsteps approaching her at a fast pace and tried to straighten up, even though the idea of running again made her want to die. The footsteps were from the wrong direction to be Orson or Jetsam, though, and she only hoped they hadn’t called the police and accused her of something like stealing from them or trying to come into a Whites Only space.
Then Sebastian was there, his arm around her shoulder, his voice soothing. “Girl,” he said, sounding almost as breathless as she felt. “You just about gave me a heart attack.” He tucked her in under his arm and started walking slowly. “Did you sign anything?”
“No,” she whispered, thinking of the dream she’d let slip out from under her fingers. He squeezed her a little tighter, and she let herself lean against him.
“All right. Let’s get you home. You’ve had quite a night.” A few moments ticked by in silence, and he said, “By the way, Adella said to tell you that you could have her shift on Monday night.”
Ariel groaned, and Sebastian’s laughter sounded like warmth and home as it rang out across the foggy streets. She might still be trapped in her own world, but there were some prices that just weren’t worth paying, and she was okay with that. One day, she’d walk in the front door of any place she wanted to go—and she would do it on her own terms.