"You'd better dance, I think," the woman recommended, looking over at Bruno - yeah, recommended, like sitting at a bar counter was a substitute for a whole conversation. He didn't recall ever meeting her - not one little bell rung by the face; not by that outfit either, that was for sure. The dress, shoes, bag and all that was fine, but the top hat?
"Show's gonna start just now," she said, hiking a thumb over her shoulder towards the dance floor and the little stage with the piano. "It's like there's pretty much nothing else to do, then."
Bruno looked the nut up and down, and when he met her eyes again she shrugged. He decided not to bother explaining to her that she was a fruitcake, since she seemed to be aware, and just scoffed. He turned away and kept most of his attention on the state of the light fixtures, the number of patrons, and pulling at his cigar, and she waited without any more fuss for the glasses of wine and water she'd ordered.
"I am gonna dance," Sally told Wanda, who was going around being a nut again. At least she'd brought along a glass of wine, of which Sally took a grateful sip. All right, a gulp. Sheesh, it was like she hadn't taken a breath for the past hour. "I am gonna, honey. Yeah, yeah, it's busy tonight, but it's also you up there... Like you really need to go remind me, after how many times I've asked you to come back here?"
"It's not a reminder, it's me asking. I am always gonna be polite about it," Wanda told her, grinning sweetly into the little mirror pasted on the inside of her clutch bag. Some women would just be checking their lipstick, but Wanda was probably checking on her every childhood dream of stardom. She said with her low-and-throbbing, kinda manly radio voice: "I am always gonna be absolutely charming.
"And you have to relax for a five- or six-minute break," she added as she looked back to Sally. "So hit the dance floor when I get going!"
"What if I might be ..."
The breathless, red-faced girl took time to work up to a conclusion. Wanda had to drink some of her water so she didn't finish the girl's sentence for her.
"Just a little bit shy." Yep, there it was; Wanda had guessed right. And now the girl's head hung down so low she almost looked to be hiding it in her armpit. "It seems like a lot to get into, and I'm only here because of my friends being late to come home, 'cause of car trouble, and not having left keys or anything with the neighbours..."
Wanda pointed out people in ones and twos, the girl's gaze twitching to follow. "Find someone shyer. I'll send 'em your way, even." A wink, and the girl lost her breath again - a little hopeful, but also a little more fearful. Well, a challenge would be fun.
"I will dance with my mop. Occasionally the bucket, should it need a refill," the new janitor said icily. "I'll be overwhelmed with the romance of it." He clicked his tongue with disdain fit for a church elder gossiping at the fundraising fair. "No girl out there wants anything to do with me."
"Except maybe for the time it takes to do one dance. With you dolled up from a minute backstage in my dressing room," Wanda said. "You saw me talk to the manager? Come on, you've seen I've got my buddy Sally wrapped round my finger. I'll be able to keep you out of trouble easy."
"That's not how I know anybody who gets up on a stage."
A joke! He scoffed to himself as dismissively as that man at the bar had - honestly, men these days - but she might unbend him yet. Wanda tipped her hat at his back and made a little note in her mind for one day soon when she'd be back at the club for a repeat performance.
"Try and stop us!" the group from the local college shouted as Wanda waved at them in passing, not needing to speak a word, and began to stamp their feet. You could depend on kids like those. She blew them a quick half-dozen kisses.
Light amber and dim, focused on her; a slight dip in the sound of voices was accompanied by the slight scrape of chairs, pushing closer to the table for the occupants to listen a while.
There it goes. The real start. When they're waiting for...
Wanda loosed a ripple of notes that rolled down from her and her piano on the dais, clearing out the corners of the wallflowers and canoodlers, and tapping bowed heads under the chin to tip them up.
The dream was that it would happen to everyone in the room one day - not even a big room. This one would do: Sally's bar with its doors desperate to stay open. Wanda's little reminders round the floor would have them primed to pause conversation and they would listen with stillness aside from how their heads tilt. Then some would jump up! Some would nod their heads, smiling! Every one of them would find something worth their attention, start-to-finish of one full song. There would be at least one, for one single night, and it would take them all somewhere deep and become the one thing worth listening to as it rose out of her and her piano.
The reality, now, tonight, as Wanda ran a practiced eye and a grin over the floor: Damn right, you're dancing. Maybe it's most of you, too; almost every single one!
She rolled herself forward with the play of her fingers purring the sound out of the piano. Not the dream yet, but they listened to her night after night, across the city. They listened to tunes of hers and others, those she'd learned a week ago and those her music teacher had genially loomed over her to impress on her as a kid. Music that turned dust into gold that was easy to breathe, made afternoons confoundingly short, that became part of thought in the way familiar images, scents, or words normally were.
It reached around the room as if it could make her friends, the notes running together as bright and merry as she might have wished some new friends to be. Up and down and sweet, even if something bitter crept in alongside; even when it had to slow, had to sadden, there was a lot of lightness to it still.
The slightly too-bright blue suit sported by Mr Expensive Cigar at the Bar made it easy to spot him with Sally. The students ate up the space as usual - two of the girls among them taking care of the shy stranger and twirling with her.
And even the janitor sneaked over when she took a break to have some of her water! He had the look of someone who'd been clicking his fingers and nodding along, and she had to reapply her lipstick in order not to start looking a little smug. "So who do you dance with? Looks like you're the sucker who's got to keep working," he said pointedly, but the look of him had softened up enough that it was teasing rather than some kind of attempt to point out hypocrisy.
"You," Wanda decided. "Now, when my break's over. One-handed - I'll dance and I'll play. Dammit, I can do that! Oh, fine, don't look so alarmed." He didn't, really, he'd only barely raised his eyebrows. "We'll time it for when they're mostly drunk, so they'll miss any rough details or missteps, and we will split the tips. Half each."
The janitor took a glance at Sally - now in heavy conversation with the man in the blue suit - and another narrow look at Wanda.
"Give me a signal," he said, so sardonically that she didn't think he was serious. But she took her chance - Wanda stood and started playing with just one hand, and he leaped on-stage. Like some kind of professional he took a bow, sweeping a top hat off his head as he did so - one of her spares from the dressing room.
She tapped her foot loudly and with a motion the audience would catch, mock-impatient - he rolled his eyes towards the floor, getting a few laughs. A couple of stern chords whipped him around, grabbing her hand to press a fake, hugely apologetic kiss onto the air above it: and then they danced, Wanda playing with one hand that switched with every spin. Sometimes she grabbed her new dance partner's hand to play for her, sometimes she cribbed in a simple drag or two of her hand across the keyboard and made it as musical as she could, but she didn't let up, she improvised and hounded out every last memory of a suitable song and made it as good a listen, as good a dance, as much fun as she'd always done her best to roll out.
The dais had a narrow rim around the perimeter of the piano. They had to do lots of dipping each other off the edge for the sake of making the motions dramatic enough, people laughing or cheering every time Wanda was the one doing the dipping. And those dips also got the best response in terms of tips. There weren't just a few coins and bills tossed on-stage, there were flowers! Her first flowers!
Call me a star, Mama, Wanda thought, grabbing up and waving a rose she'd swear came from that shy girl, but decided she'd rather tell her brother the story first than her mother. He'd have more of a sense of humour about it.
Sally loved the improvised act to the point of raving; thought they'd practiced. "Bring the house down! Giving the kind of act I hadn't even paid for! That nobody would even think of at all... You'll do all right in this madhouse," she added to Cedric, the janitor. "And just - oh, that was spectacular, just have such a good night!" Then she cha-cha'ed back into the building with no music required; the man in the blue suit had apparently had a business proposition for her and the bar that she really liked the sound of.
"You do this kind of thing all the time?" Cedric asked Wanda. By now he was outright friendly, having offered her a cigarette, smiling a little when she politely declined; and that even before they'd split the tips.
Wanda opened her arms to the spotlight; the moon in the open lot out behind the kitchen. A lot of people had danced in there, almost all of them, she thought, though it had been harder to keep track while she was jumping around. Even when they were laughing as hard as they had been, they'd danced! She thought she'd been close to that simple, one-day-some-day-could-you-come-day dream; and she'd even danced with them for once... "Of course. It's what I am."