by Brandy T. Wilson
It is the age of bathtub gin, jazz—and lines. Lines not to be crossed, and certainly not by women.
Ladies sing the blues at The Palace and the rebellious, resourceful Frankie admires the cross-dressing Jean Bailey from afar. Running from her family’s oppressive pressure to marry, Frankie abandons her safe, white life in Chicago and follows the blues singer instead. At first it is merely an adventure of her star struck heart.
But the railroad yards, good times, riverboats and bum times lead Frankie on a remarkable journey between the sterile choices of her family and a reckless, daring life that at least offers a kind of freedom for a girl like her. Or is there another choice, one beyond the blues?
GCLS Goldie Awards
The Palace Blues — Finalist, Lesbian Historical Fiction.
Lambda Literary Awards
The Palace Blues, Finalist, Lesbian Fiction.
Alice B. Readers
Brandy T. Wilson: 2016 Lavender Certificate for The Palace Blues
There's a wonderful sensuality in Wilson's writing, and the book has some of the easy pleasure of a genre romance, but nothing is prettied up... In addition to being a coming-of -age/coming-out story and an unsentimental romance, The Palace Blues is a road novel... [Frankie's] trip is a guided tour of louche life in the Prohibition-era South, replete with sensuality, racism, violence, and hypocrisy... Brandy Wilson, who teaches English at the University of Memphis, has created an endearing heroine in Frankie, and even though the outlines of Frankie's story are grim, her passion and optimism make the novel a vibrant, engaging read.
I was seventeen the first time I snuck into Jimmy Small’s. My hair was cut short like the city girls, and I was grubby from cleaning rent rooms. I was a backwoods, small-town Texas tomboy, born and raised, after all. Dressed in hand-me-down trousers and suspenders and smelling of dried sweat and tobacco, I naturally came off as a boy. And lucky I did, too, because it was the only way I could walk the streets alone or get into any of the joints.
I’d be eighteen in a little over a month, but to my mind, I was already grown. I’d have given my eyeteeth to actually live in Chicago, but I was just visiting—helping in my uncle’s grocery shop and boarding house for the summer. By day, Chicago’s South Side was dusty, flat, and dry, but at night it was wet with gin and Blues, secretly hanging on against the Bible-thumping temperance women like my mama. At the end of the day, if I listened hard enough the horns from the clubs could be heard out into the street, all the way up into the rent rooms above my uncle’s shop. It was all my uncle could do to keep me inside. I yearned to be where the music was. So on a Saturday in the cool of the evening I latched my thumbs at my trouser pockets, lit up a cigarette from a pack I’d found in one of the rent rooms, and strolled toward Small’s.
It was July 1 and the theaters and proprietors were hot and geared up for the Fourth. The Rapp and Rapp Theater’s sign was glowing with red and white curved lights spelling out Chicago. People swaggered along under the lights, and trinket shops and storefronts held late hours to keep up with the neighboring joints. I could hear the buzz of electricity as I passed by on the other side of the street.
Jimmy Small’s was one of those places they called “Black and Tan” clubs, a speakeasy on the corner of State and East 35th, just up the road from the shop but far away from the heady intellectuals that flooded the area, away from the successful businessmen like my uncle playing poker with his boys, away from my aunt tucked away at home up on Prairie Avenue.
The building had been a storefront a few summers back, but had closed and the windows were boarded up with plywood. Jimmy Small had come along and torn off the rotted wood and shaded the windows. The place still had its shabby tin overhang, but Small had painted a sign out front pronouncing it The Palace Café.
That night there was a crowd of people, black and white, standing around the door smoking cigarettes and pushing down on each other’s shoulders to see into the building. A trombone wailed from inside, sounding like someone was sobbing yet howling with joy—all at the same time. It hit my stomach like a drum, and I knew I had to get in. I walked around to the alley to avoid the crowd and found a side door. It was clear of people, so I edged open the heavy door just enough to squeeze through.
Inside, sweet perfume and musky cologne with the faint stench of bathtub gin hung in the air as I weaved through the swarm of people. No one questioned or even acknowledged me, maybe because I was dressed as a boy, maybe because I was white—probably both. I sure wasn’t the only white person there. I stood on my tiptoes, craning my neck to see over the people. Small had raised a stage that took up the whole of the front wall where a band was playing a popping tune, horns held high. I could barely see over the bobbing heads in front of me so I pushed further in to find a place to watch the show.
There were makeshift tables along the sidewalls and a smooth cherry bar that wrapped around the back, both lined with stools. The middle was open space, a dirty wood floor with a few support beams. The joint was filled up with people standing shoulder to shoulder, and most of the stools were full, especially those up close to the stage. Finally, I found my way to one open stool, dead center, but in the back next to a support beam. The heat grew so thick it crept up to my neck and beaded sweat at my brow. It was better than my uncle’s poker table or being stuck at the house with my aunt, so I climbed up to stand on top of that stool and held my ground as I peered out over the crowd.
Plenty of rich folks had come down to Small’s to “slum it” on South Side. Most all of them were men though. The women, the white women, the few that were there, were all fanning themselves, slinging their hats and gloves off in the heat. They swayed into their fellows, wide-eyed and giggling. They were already drunk on the bathtub gin that a black man in work clothes was scuttling up out of the basement for them. Some of them fainted, but most of them just left early, before their wax faces slid off, before the show really got good.
The band took a short break, and when they returned, they brought a singer with them. She took center stage, robust and proud as a peacock, and commanded attention with one long opening bellow, bringing the room to silence with a tough, southern drawl as she strutted into song.
She wore a floor-length gown, satiny white, and it sparkled against her dark skin. Shiny tight ringlets of hair hung all around a sparkling headband and almost touched her broad shoulders. Her dark face was lighter around the eyes, cheeks plump and smooth. Her full lips glistened in the lights, lined with a red glow. Her exaggerated lashes fluttered with the song, her honey-colored eyes alive and sparkling. From the moment the singer took the stage, she was all I could see—all I could hear was her voice, like a hot horn vibrating through my chest and into my stomach. I clung to the support beam, wishing I could reach out over that crowd, touch the gown that clung at her shoulders but exposed her healthy arms, soft collarbones and the shadow between her breasts. The men at the bar kept stumbling into my stool, but I stayed on, even when the stool shook under my feet each time she moaned a chorus. Even in that crowd and that heat, I was wide-eyed and giddy, but I couldn’t have fainted even if someone had knocked me over the head.
The band was piled in a sweaty heap behind her, every last one of them dressed in matching black suits. The pianist sat apart from the rest, closer to her. He was thinner and softer looking, his hands just skin-covered bones moving across the keys. When the horns sounded behind her, folks started swaying and dancing a slow drag. The rising of the notes brought her voice to a vibrating boom:
“I’m always keeping one spot warm for you, honey,” she sang.
This sent the café into a frenzy. Men hooted and hollered, and the black women wailed with her, raising their hands in acknowledgment. The song sent a warm rush from my stomach to between my thighs, and I almost buckled at the knee. This was what they called “The Blues,” the real Blues, not like the men who came around my hometown joints every weekend with their guitar picking and Texas twang. They didn’t have that moan, that ability to bewitch the crowd. They didn’t have her, Jean Bailey.
I wanted to be like her—tough and beautiful, loud and in control. But more than that, I wanted, needed to be near her, touch her—make sure she was real.
At the end of the last song she bowed at the waist like a man, and this deepened her cleavage. The crowd hollered again, and I couldn’t help it, I belted out a shout. My face flushed, but I steadied myself to watch her leave the stage and make her way through the crowd splitting for her like a curtain all the way to the wraparound bar behind me. She caught my stare, but turned her gaze almost immediately to the bar.
“Jimmy, you know what I want.” Even her speaking voice was loud and drawn out.
“Bailey, don’t give me any lip tonight,” he yelled back, not at all intimidated.
As she got her drink, she turned to me again. Her eyes ran the length of me as she cocked an eyebrow and put her drink to her lip. I felt clammy and crowded with all of those sweaty bodies around me, but at the same time I got this feeling like I was the one on display, like my stool had become the stage. I slunk down, crossed my arms and tucked my hands underneath them, feeling my small breasts give me away. I could feel them forcing my suspenders to round out at the chest, bow toward my armpits. I pressed down harder and made my way to the door. As I squeezed through the crowd, I heard her talking to Jimmy Small, still loud, still smooth.
“You better shut it up, Jimmy, or I’ll leave now and never come back to this shithole.”
I wanted to go back then, beg her to stay whatever the trouble was with Jimmy Small, but it was too late. I was being crowded out the door and into the street.
Just outside, I thought I heard Small yelling her name, “Jean Bailey, Jean Bailey.” Once out of earshot, I let it roll softly off my own lips and into the night air, knowing full well that by the time I got back to the shop I’d have to wipe the look of awe off my face, or Uncle Albert might just do it for me.
When I got back to the shop that night, I hadn’t realized how late it was, or I would have just gone on back to the house. The front was locked up and I had to go around back. My uncle Albert would be playing poker in the little room back there, and I’d have to try to sneak by without them noticing me. I hoped they thought I’d just fallen asleep upstairs waiting to go home. I creaked through the back door and down the hall toward the stairs. It was dark, but there was a light under the door. I could hear the men hollering over each other, could smell the cigar smoke, even the booze, seeping under the crack.
Prohibition liquor was strong, and what they usually got was dangerous if not deadly. A month back they hauled one man out. He was big and it took four of them to carry him. I had to hold the door and caught a glimpse of his face, sunken, contorted, his eyes rolled back in his head. But my uncle didn’t pay no mind to the law, and not much to the danger of the booze. He’d been drinking since he was fourteen. He’d boast, “Hadn’t got me yet! Why should the police or a trip to the doc scare me?”
Just as I was about to pass by the door, it flew open. Jack, my uncle’s old army chum, was coming out. He’d let go of the door, and it was wide open. As he scrambled to close it again, my uncle yelled, “What the hell’s going on out there?”
The room went silent, save the clanking of bottles falling to the floor in an attempt to hide their contents. I started to tell them it was just me so they wouldn’t jump out of their skin, but as I opened my mouth to speak, I saw my Uncle Albert, his roughly shaven cheeks, his falling jaw, a look of dismay coming into his eyes. Both of his arms fell to his sides, unleashing the woman in his lap. The woman was not my aunt, who was fast asleep at home at this hour. It was Cora, all dolled up like I’d never seen her, bright pink rouge and lipstick and stiff little ringlets of hair all about her head.
Cora, a young black woman, was my uncle’s hired help, and I worked with her cleaning the rent rooms above the grocery. She spoke with an accent I could never place and wrapped her head up completely every day in a kerchief, not a lick of makeup on her face. I never saw her hair. I never asked to. Once I had asked about where she was from, and Cora sucked in her bottom lip and tightened her grip on the basket of laundry. I thought she’d slap me for sure, but she just walked away as if I hadn’t asked. I didn’t figure I’d get much further with the hair. Working with Cora was all right though. She let me act like cleaning the rent rooms was my job, my real job, but she was always there to tell me if I wasn’t doing it to suit her. I half expected her to scold me then, but she got to her feet, smoothed her dress and turned around, acting like she was cleaning the little cabinet behind the men.
“Frankie, what the hell are you doing? Where have you been?”
Jack walked by me then and grabbed some sodas from the cooler. He was an uppity businessman who owned a slaughterhouse but never seemed to be there. Jack hardly ever left my uncle’s place and was more like another uncle to me. He shook his head at me as he set the sodas in front of the other men at the table.
“I—I was shopping—for, for my mother,” I stammered. This was what I usually told them when I went out walking, that I shopped at one of the new department stores and took the streetcar home. Even if I got home late on the last car, I’d tell my aunt I’d been tending the shop counter while Uncle Albert was busy. They didn’t talk much, and when they did, my comings and goings were the last thing they wanted to discuss. But it was too late tonight.
“A damned lie. The stores have been closed for hours, and she’s still out gallivanting,” Jack muttered.
“I was just walking around, Uncle Albert. I guess I lost track of time.”
He shook his head and stared back at me, as if to search my face, curious, but also with a punishing look. “You don’t have any business being out on the streets at this hour, young lady. I don’t know what in God’s name you’re up to, but you best watch your step. Get on out of here. Wait for me in the shop.”
“Yes, sir.” I nodded and turned to leave, pulling the door closed behind me. A strange sense of defiance mingled with guilt in my stomach.
I calmed just enough to fall asleep in the chair behind the counter. He nudged me awake and motioned me to the door. The drive home was silent. He fidgeted with his mustache as he drove, and just as we were getting out of the Model T, he shot me a glance, raising his brows.
“Frankie, I will not have you embarrassing me like that again. Do you understand? You best know your place and keep it.” He didn’t wait for an answer or even a nod as he headed toward the house. “We got a big load of canned goods coming in the morning. You be up and ready to go first thing.” He went inside, me trailing behind.
I wanted to argue with him. Cora in his lap, surrounded by booze and cards, was worse than me being out late, but I knew well enough to keep my mouth shut. I walked on into the house with my head down.
* * *
The next morning came early, and all I wanted to do was lie in bed, smoke cigarettes and think about Jean Bailey. A plume of smoke flared into a stream of sunlight coming through the window and I watched the dust illuminate, twisting into a ribbon as I exhaled. I pictured Jean Bailey walking through it, toward me, taking my hand. A gush of blood rose in me as I imagined the texture of her hand, dark and smooth, fleshy and strong, against mine, against my flesh.
“Frankie…Frankie…Dorothy Frances! You get out of that bed right this instant!” Aunt Ida’s voice crackled over the sound of her cane on the stairs, and with it, my daydream collapsed. I rolled over and grabbed the ledge of the window. The butt of my cigarette was still smoldering so I couldn’t throw it out yet. I fanned at the open window until I heard the creaking of the last step near the top of the staircase. I spat on my finger, rubbed it around the end of the butt, and then tossed it out before shutting the window. The window went down with a bang, but Aunt Ida was already rapping her cane against the doorframe. I straightened up, putting my back to the window, and avoided looking her in the eye, afraid my face would give me away.
“What in God’s name is that awful smell? Is that smoke, Frances?” She wrinkled up her nose and fanned at the air around her. “Frankie, why are you standing there looking dumbfounded? Get dressed. Your uncle has already left without you. You’ve got to get down to the shop to…” She was too out of breath to finish her sentence. In the last few years her arthritis had made getting around near impossible. She’d quit helping out at the shop, giving the job to me in the summer, and stayed at home, mainly on the first floor. Except that she insisted on climbing the stairs each and every morning to get me out of bed. I even began to wake up early to beat her to it. But she’d hear me creaking around and come up anyway, hollering over her pounding cane, afraid I’d leave without breakfast, sneak away into the day.
Aunt Ida stood in the doorway, her head following me as I hurried back and forth across the room throwing on clothes. Just as I was slipping my suspenders over my shoulders, she frowned. “What’ve you got those trousers on again for? You have to tend the counter today. With that big shipment coming in, your uncle can’t be out front.”
I turned and dug through my dresses in my trunk. I picked one out. It was a day frock, the dark blue cotton one with the white trim around the stiff collar that my mother and I had made together the previous season, and held it up for my aunt’s approval. The dress was long, tight in the waist, and high in the collar just exactly like a Gibson girl and not at all the new style, a style I was fascinated with.
The day Mama and I made it, I’d been thumbing through patterns, drawing and redrawing them the way I wanted, watching Mama correct them. I had seen the new shorter hemlines and dramatic drop-waists in a catalog, the same kind of dresses on the women on State Street and hanging in the armoires in the rent rooms.
Mama had frowned down at my patterns. “Dorothy Frances, you will not, cannot, be seen out in public in such garb. I don’t care about the hooligan city girls, the—what is it these women are calling themselves?” Mama had said, turning her nose up at the thought. “Ladies of the night, loose women is what they are! I don’t care what they call themselves.”
“It’s fashion, Mama,” I said.
“You’re too young for fashion.”
“I’m almost eighteen!”
She raised an eyebrow at me and turned back to the frock in her lap, trimming the seam with large heavy sewing scissors cutting in chops as if it were a carrot. My mother was smooth as silk when it came to clothes, to sewing. I had her knack and followed her lead though I often hated being cooped up in that little sewing room with her. It was at the top of the house, just up from my bedroom. It had slanted walls, as it wasn’t meant to be a room at all but an attic. She had a little wooden table in the middle and a tiny sewing machine in one corner. There were two chairs, a comfortable, cushioned one she sat in, and an upright wooden one where I sat or stood to be measured. I hated the stagnant air of the room, the sun peering through the windows like punishment. And I hated the clothes we made.
I let out a long sigh in the now stagnant air of my aunt’s guest room as I tossed the drab blue dress on the bed and unbuttoned my shirt. This was the only day dress I knew my aunt would be happy with, and it required full under-dress, corset and all, which she would have to help me put on.
Uncle Albert and Aunt Ida were childless. I was my mama’s only girl, the only child at all, and I suppose that made a difference in the matter. When Aunt Ida, my mother’s younger sister, married Uncle Albert, a well-to-do businessman, and moved up to Chicago, she was just a few years older than I was then. My mother and my aunt had expectations and high hopes for me that summer, most likely to get me married well like my aunt and most recently, like my younger cousin, Deloris. The coming fall, she was to marry her boyfriend, Bean. His whole name was Randal Brady Bean, but Bean was what stuck. They’d have a country wedding and live out on Bean’s family land in West Texas, nothing but a dust bowl and poor folks scattered across the flatlands like so many ants in anthills. Deloris was beautiful, proper, more proper than I ever was, and always dressed appropriately. My mother approved of her and often pushed me out on double dates to chaperone Deloris and Bean, though we all knew I had no interest in dating the boys. I was interested in staying in Chicago, anywhere but going back to Texas, and had no intention of marrying anyone.