Someone rapped on the hotel room door.
Gloria squealed, laughing. "He's still
"Shhhhh. It's not funny."
Phoenix wasn't in the mood for fan bullshit. If this was the same
boy, he'd been outside their hotel suite two solid hours, knocking
softly every half hour to let them know he hadn't gone anywhere.
What had been amusing at ten wasn't at midnight.
Phoenix pulled a velvet throw pillow from her
cousin's bed across her eyes. Before the last knock, Gloria had
been flipping through The Source, fantasizing about which
men she'd like to hook up with when they had the chance to shop
backstage at the Grammys or the MTV Music Awards -- It's a
tough choice between Tyrese and 50 Cent, huh?
Phoenix's only fantasy right then was to have
the strength to walk to her master bedroom across the hall, brush
her teeth and go to bed. The OutKast CD sounded tinny and awful
from the cheap CD player that doubled as a clock radio, and
Phoenix knew she had to be tired, if OutKast couldn't wake
her up. She couldn't remember being this trashed on the road
before, even when she still had a band hauling instruments and
The knock on their door came again, bolder.
"What's your name?" Gloria called
toward her open doorway, and she might as well have been calling
down the street. This was the biggest room of Phoenix's tour so
far, an elegant suite with two bedrooms, a living room with a
dining room table for six, phones and televisions in each
bathroom, and Phoenix's master bedroom, with a canopied bed so
high off the ground that it came with its own steps. Welcome to
the future, Gloria had said when they arrived last night. The
room was comped, or Sarge would have put them up at the Budget Inn
as usual. At least at Budget Inn, she didn't have to walk so far
to go to bed. Everything has a price, she thought.
"Don't encourage that boy," Phoenix
said, slapping Gloria's thigh. "I'm not kidding."
"I'm Kendrick," a voice came back,
full of false confidence. He sounded young, a kid.
"How'd he find my room? I'm calling Sarge,"
Phoenix said. Sarge wasn't in for the night yet -- he was surely
out at one of the clubs schmoozing the radio folks and music
writers -- but Sarge's cell was always strapped to his belt, fully
"Don't call Sarge. Damn. Just talk
to the man. You haven't been laid in a month."
True enough. Ronn was busy, and so was she. Ronn
was in L.A. recording a CD and trying to get his film production
company going, and she was in the middle of her radio tour to
promote her first CD on Ronn's label, Rising. Three Strikes
Records was better known for gangsta rap than R&B, but Ronn
had put a lot of labor into Rising, and not just because he
sometimes shared his massive four-poster bed with his new artist.
With a hit-maker like D'Real producing her tracks, Ronn had told
Phoenix she'd better get used to people knowing who she was, the
good and the bad.
Was this stranger outside the door part of the
good, or part of the bad?
"I rode the bus from New York to see you,
Phoenix," said the young man's muffled voice. "I'm
prelaw at NYU, not a stalker. I'm only asking for one night, and I
won't be bragging to my boys in the morning. I want to be a
gentleman and treat you like a lady."
"Phee, boyfriend is smooth. Ask him
if he brought a partner," Gloria whispered, and Phoenix
pinched her cousins's arm to shut her up. Gloria was crazy if she
thought they were going to tag-team groupies tonight, Gloria's
But the man had come from New York to St. Louis
on a bus just to lay this rap on her? How did he know where
she'd be staying, much less where her room was? This boy better
hope her father wouldn't stop by the suite and find him standing
there. After a month straight on the road, Sarge would not be in
the mood for a stranger who didn't understand boundaries.
Phoenix stood up. She was still wearing the
tattered jeans and white T-shirt from rehearsal for Friday night's
show at Le Beat, her peanut-butter-colored makeup smudging her
collar and shoulders. She lifted her underarm, and her tart scent
assailed her nose. Gloria was a M.A.C. girl who kept herself glam
day and night -- streaked hair moussed to perfection, face painted
to glorify all the right angles, blouses cut low across her
cleavage -- and compared to her cousin, Phoenix knew she looked
like one funky mess. Funky and tired.
So why was she wasting the energy she'd saved
for brushing her teeth to walk to the suite's white double doors?
Phoenix put her face close to the doors. She could smell cologne
in the cool air through the crack, one she knew. Calvin, maybe.
Not Kenzo, but not bad.
"How'd you find my room?" she said to
the crack and the cologne.
"Oh, Father Jesus," she heard him say,
surprised. His smoothness had evaporated.
"You know you're not supposed to be
standing outside my room, right?" Gentle but firm.
His voice came closer to the crack, and she saw
a blur of dark skin. "Miss Smalls, I love your music.
I have your CD from back in the day, those cuts with the mad
keyboard riffs, that first one you put out. You're a straight-up
Phoeinx's first CD had been born and buried four
years ago, so this was a hard-core fan. Phoenix and her band in
Miami had poured their souls into two CDs, and their old label
hadn't sold enough copies to pay for them. That had hurt so much,
she'd come within a breath of telling Sarge she was ready to quit,
except that she knew how disappointed he would be. At Three
Strikes, Ronn and D'Real had laid down the law: Her original music
was too this, too that, not urban enough, not enough like D'Real's
vibe, and D'Real is the producer and the producer is God. Hell,
D'Real's the real star, let's be real. Sarge had warned her
things would be different at a major label, and he'd been right.
As different as different could be.
"One of my cousins works here, and she told
me where you'd be," the boy said through the door.
"Please don't try to make me say who. I promised not to get
her in trouble."
This was rich. "Someone's pimping me out at
the front desk?"
"It ain't like that." She heard the
smile in his voice, saw the white of his teeth through the crack.
Polished, peroxide teeth. "I told her I would slide up on you
for an autograph. But I couldn't get this close and miss my chance
to scrub your back while you take a bubble bath. And take some of
this massage oil to rub down your muscles. I have strong hands,
Damn, that does sound good, she thought.
Her knees and thighs were throbbing, sore.
"If you want to take it to the next level,
of course I have protection," he went on. "And just to
keep it safe, I brought a doctor's report you can look at. I don't
"Oh, no he didn't say that!"
Gloria said, Miss Blue-Eyed Ghetto Fabulous in the flesh.
"This is a joke," Phoenix said,
certain. Arturo and the dancers had nerve bothering her this late.
"Who is this?"
Phoenix opened the door, and the man who stood
there was a stranger. He was tall and lanky, with tree-trunk
shoulders, a boyish face the complexion of Wesley Snipes, and a
shadow of fuzz on the deep cleft of his chin. It wasn't a joke.
Phoenix assessed the stranger's loose linen pants, bone-colored
knit shirt, leather sandals, and close-cropped haircut. Nice.
He had a leather duffel bag slung across his shoulder, probably
his Booty Kit. He would be a magnificent man one day, but he was
young. Very young.
"You're a baby, Kendrick," she said.
"Let's see some ID."
This must be how Carlos had felt with her, she
realized. Phoenix didn't think of Carlos often, but she wished it
was Carlos at her door instead of a stranger. Carlos's memory
might be bad luck for this boy, since Sarge had knocked one of
Carlos's back teeth loose.
Gloria posted herself beside Phoenix, no longer
laughing, her guardian. Phoenix couldn't pay her cousin much -- a
little pocket change, free travel, and free hotel rooms -- but she
would definitely pay Gloria more one day. That was a fact.
One day soon.
Kendrick reached for his wallet, clumsy. It took
him nearly thirty seconds to pull his license from its sleeve.
Kendrick Allen Hart, Brooklyn, New York. Just turned nineteen. If
he'd been seventeen or eighteen, Phoenix would have sent him back
to the playground. Nineteen made him more interesting. Hell, she
was only twenty-four, and her promo packets claimed she was
twenty-one. There was only a two-year age difference between this
boy and Phoenix singular, The Phoenix, no last name
necessary. Sarge said if Beyoncé and Ashanti and Imani didn't
need surnames, neither did she.
"Phoenix, ma'am, you're more beautiful in
person," Kendrick said, smart enough to keep his distance in
the hall. She saw perspiration across his forehead, but his
cologne smelled fresh. His smile struggled against a twitching
bottom lip, but held on.
"Thank you. Give me your bag," Phoenix
Quickly, Kendrick complied, ducking beneath its
strap as he swallowed hard.
Phoenix gave the lightweight duffel bag to
Gloria, who unzipped it behind her, stone-faced. Most days, Gloria
was hardly better than no help at all, but she liked playing
bodyguard. If Kendrick forgot himself, Gloria would put him on his
"You coming to the New York show?"
Phoenix said, small talk during the inspection.
Kendrick's admiration, loosed from all
restraint, leaped free. "What? I ain' missin' it!
Front and center. I can't hang out in St. Louis and see you Friday
'cuz of my Af-Am lit final, but I will hear you at the
Osiris. Believe that. History in the making. Phoenix, you
are off the hook."
Friday's show was a small listening party at a
club called Le Beat near the University of Missouri, no big deal.
But next week, Phoenix had a gig opening for the New York leg of
the Hip-Hop R&B Summer MegaJam, joining the show at the
historic Osiris Theater in Harlem. That show would be the biggest
of her life, maybe seventeen hundred people. A few days later, she
would begin shooting her first music video for her single on
location in L.A. The sun is about to shine on you, Peanut,
Sarge told her. Time to open the blinds.
"Where'd you get the nerve to come stand
outside my door?" Phoenix said to the boy.
"I prayed on it. I won't get another chance
after you blow up like you're gonna do."
"You know you're crazy, right?"
"Hell, yeah. Gotta be crazy in a crazy-ass
Gloria was grinning while she went through the
duffel bag. "Ooh, he brought the good kind," she said,
playfully shaking a black box of condoms. Lambskin, the brand Ronn
She was going to do this, Phoenix realized, her
heart racing. She had never done this before, not with a fan on
the road, but she was going to do this tonight.
"You really brought a medical report?"
"Yes, ma'am. Got it from my doctor on
Monday, before I left. It's in there."
"Bring your crazy ass in here, Kendrick.
Don't make me sorry. And if you call me ma'am again, you're
"What should I call you?"
"What do you think? Call me Phoenix."
The sound of her name lit his face afire.
Phoenix worked hard not to think about Ronn as
she climbed out of her robe and sank into the jetted marble tub
Kendrick filled to the sky with bubbles. The boy's eyes on her
made her body feel clumsy -- breasts too small, legs too thin,
stomach pooch too big -- but her uneasiness vanished in the
embrace of the hot water and the blanket of bubbles. The bubbles
rose up past her chin as water beat into the tub amid the whir of
the jets. In Kendrick's eyes, she was a goddess.
Kendrick let his shirt fall from his shoulders,
past his hips, revealing the banks of his dark chest's muscles,
unburdened by body fat. His erection cast a shadow across the
crotch of his pants in the candlelight. He looked like a Herb
Ritts photo, except his head wasn't shaved.
He was beautiful.
Shit. She was really going to spend the
night with a fan. What would Ronn say if he could see her in a
candelit bathroom with this half-naked manchild? She and Ronn had
never said they were exclusive. She hadn't seen Ronn in a month.
He only called her every three or four days now, not every night
like he used to. It wasn't like he was going home alone every
night. She'd be crazy to believe that. "You know who
my boyfriend is, right?" Phoenix said, to cover her
"Just what I read," Kendrick said. He
didn't sound concerned.
"Keep that in mind before you say anything
foolish to anybody. We're straight?"
Ronn would never hurt her, and she didn't think
he'd try to hunt down a groupie she'd met on the road if he heard
about it, but you never knew. One of Ronn's overzealous fans might
give Kendrick a beatdown if he started bragging. Anything could
happen after that crazy shooting last month in New York, everybody
saying G-Ronn and Three Strikes was behind it. That was bullshit
-- Ronn had hustled a little in the projects way back when, but
he'd been more a businessman than a thug. Still, you couldn't
guess what other people would do in your name.
Kendrick hooked his hands into the waistband of
his linen pants. "You don't have to tell me twice. This is
about me and my memories, and hopefully you and yours."
Kendrick must have put too much bubble bath in
the jetted tub, she realized. The bubbles were a mountain in front
of her, so Phoenix had to carve a tunnel to see through. The
bathroom reeked of the bubble bath's sickly sweet strawberry
scent. He'll learn, she thought.
"Didn't you promise to scrub my back?
Better hurry, before I drown in these."
"Sorry," he said, timid. He knelt
beside her, one knee against the marble floor.
He knocked away some of the bubbles, a path.
"Lean over," he said in her ear.
Phoenix leaned forward, her ears drowning in the
water's rush from the faucet near her face. Kendrick's fingertips
traced the trail of her spine. His fingers were more steady now
than when he'd been in the hall, all hesitation and boyishness
forgotten. His fingertips were smooth, and the tickle she felt at
the end of his fingers grew into a burn.
"Phoenix." He said her name as he
rubbed soapy warm water across her back. He said it again as he
encircled her with his arms, resting his palms across her breasts,
gently pinching her waiting nipples with his fingertips. Phoenix.
There was wonder in his voice.
And in his touch. Phoenix was shocked at the way
his squeezing fingers locked the rest of her body in place, almost
fetal, as if it were afraid to release something. Her lips parted
as her body seemed to expand beneath the warm water, pleasure in a
"Does that hurt?" he said.
She shook her head. It wasn't painful, but
torture all the same. "Let's go to the bed," she said,
thinking about how Gloria must be eating her heart out. Gloria was
probably hoping Kendrick would sashay his chocolate loveliness
over to her room next. Too bad. With blond hair like a magician's
wand, Gloria usually had her pick -- but not tonight.
In her bedroom, Phoenix noticed her Rolex on her
nightstand, a small, gleaming window to her conscience. The watch
had a diamond bezel and dial, and it was the only gift she had
accepted from Ronn. Her Rolex was the most expensive item she
owned, more than her car and keyboards combined. She burrowed
beneath the mound of covers, cool sheets swaddling her overheated
skin, and felt like she was hiding. She hadn't expected to feel
bad. She'd told herself when she hit twenty-one she would stop
doing things she felt bad about.
Kendrick climbed under the covers beside her.
His long, bonelike manhood nestled against her hip, pulsing gently
whenever she inhaled and her body rose. When he leaned over to
kiss her breast, his lips were so gentle that they might have been
kisses, or only hot breath. She could barely feel his lips and
tongue. Ronn always took her breast in the palm of his hand,
making it bulge like a melon, and lathered her nipples. She always
knew when Ronn was there.
Kendrick guided her hand toward where his eager
body strained against her, and she grasped him the way she might
hold a stick, feeling his juices beading already as she rubbed her
thumb across his most sensitive spot. He moaned against her neck,
waiting. He's tripping if he thinks I'm going down on him,
Phoenix thought, and she let him go.
Kendrick pulled her thighs apart and burrowed
beneath the sheet, but his tongue felt dry and lifeless on her, as
if he had lost his way. He was just a kid, she remembered.
"Get the condoms, OK?" she said,
because she was ready to be done with it.
Kendrick was better at intercourse, luckily. He
kept his eyes on hers, watching her face as he inched his way
inside of her, steadying himself with his arms locked. He didn't
expel right away as she'd feared, and he no longer felt like a
boy. Kendrick was so long, he seemed endless. Phoenix felt her
body loosen and flood, embracing him. His measured, confident
strokes felt so good, she almost had a full-blown orgasm. Almost.
That would take more practice, and Kendrick wouldn't have time to
learn. When he was ready, Kendrick gritted his teeth and tilted
his head so far back that his Adam'a apple bulged. "Oh, shit.
Then, it was over. This was the same way it had
been with the Dominican guy she'd danced with at Crobar on her
twenty-first birthday: The heat of a buildup realized in brief
bubbles, the pleasure over too soon, and wishing she could roll
away as soon as it was done. She suddenly wanted to ask Kendrick
to leave. She hoped he wasn't expecting to spend the night.
But Kendrick had made himself comfortable,
gazing at her from his pillow.
"Phoenix..." he whispered beside her,
disbelieving. She could smell a trace of his last meal on his
breath, something spicy. She would not kiss him. Kisses were too
intimate for a man she didn't know.
"Why do you keep saying my name like
that?" she said.
"I don't know...Like it's..."
"Like it's the name of an ancient Egyptian
goddess? It is. Like it's the name of a force of nature? It's
that, too. Pheeeee-nixxxx," he said. He cupped her
chin in his hand. His eyes were swathed by thick lashes, and he
gazed with a gravity she found unnerving. "I'm jealous,
"Jealous of what?"
"I'm jealous because I knew about you
first. I knew you when nobody else did. And now everybody's about
to come late to my party. I have to share you." When he
stroked her bare shoulder, his hand lashed fire. Her body didn't
mind if he stayed a while.
"You really think I'm gonna be all
that?" she said. Her voice cracked.
Kendrick laughed, his head rolling against the
pillow. "Don't even front. You know it."
She smiled. "Yeah, you're right."
Sarge would see to it, that was all.
"But you changed your sound. I heard a Rising
demo, and you're different now."
Phoenix had nearly forgotten that anyone would
know her old sound. "Better, right?"
"Different, not better. Maybe not as good,
in some ways, not to me. Too R&B radio. I miss the rock riffs,
the freaky keyboard, the worldbeat. But you're still in there. I
still hear you."
Phoenix had gone so long without hearing the
truth, she hadn't realized it was missing. When was the last time
anybody had the nerve to say something like that to her? Not
Gloria. Not even Sarge. Nobody since Carlos, who had seemed to
enjoy telling her exactly what she didn't want to hear. Having a
truth-teller was like having God himself in the room, so Phoenix
tried to think of a question worthy of Kendrick Allen Hart. She
covered her bare chest with the sheet. They were two people
talking now, not a wannabe singer and her one-night stand. They
could be in a junior-high schoolyard sharing a strawberry soda.
"What's the worst cut?" she said.
He shrugged. "A couple of them are
The word weak made Phoenix's stomach
cramp with gas.
Kendrick went on: "Truthfully, tracks five
and seven could go. That's the producer talking, not you. He
drowned you out. He was putting out that same shit two years
Damn. Phoenix tried to think of what to
do about the seventeen hundred people who would hear her singing
behind those recycled beats at the Osiris. They would boo her off
the stage. Had Sarge given her an escape clause in her contract?
Sarge usually took care of that.
"But that one 'Party Patrol,' that's gonna
bump all summer," Kendrick said. "Reminds me of Prince,
or the Gap Band, but with your own flava mixed in, too, like that
Middle Eastern vibe. It's tight. Nothing on your old CD was
that good. It's gonna make you a star, girl."
Phoenix felt herself breathe, her heart
pounding. "Party Patrol" was one of the few songs on Rising
that had felt like a collaboration, at least pieces of it. At
first, D'Real hadn't liked the sound of the Egyptian-style violin
intro she'd asked him to weave inside the opening measures, but
he'd relented, mixing her until she sounded like a full string
section. "Party Patrol" was one of their few true
moments of musical collaboration.
"But is the CD any good?" she said.
"Yeah, mostly. It's real good, Phoenix.
It's on for you, girl. All I'm saying is, my favorite ones
are when you're in there, too. Not your voice, but your music.
The best part."
Phoenix's stomach cramped again. In today's
rehearsal, she hadn't been able to get through the choreography of
"Party Patrol" without sounding breathless when she
sang, and on the last song her voice was smothered beneath the
exploding tracks. She wished she had a voice like her sister's,
because Serena could sing. Serena could bring it like
Aretha and Patti and Whitney, from her soul-space.
But Phoenix would have to be Phoenix. Whatever
she was, she was.
Phoenix wanted to ask Kendrick if people would
think she could sing worth a damn, but she had heard enough truth
for one night.
Me and my crew's gonna roll...We're on a Party
Kick-cross-step, kick-cross-step. Phoenix spun,
hitting her mark a fraction behind the beat. Head cocked left,
then right. And sliiiiiide...two, three, four...sliiiiiiide...two,
three, four....Hunched shoulders, snapping high. "We're
losin' control...Out on this Party Patrol..."
The more Phoenix concentrated on her dancing,
the more sluggish her energy felt. Arturo and the other two
dancers seemed to follow her lead, missing cues, stumbling over
steps and performing by rote, as if they were unmoved by the music
blasting from the giant club's speakers. Phoenix's voice cracked
on the last high note, fluttering to nothing, barely audible in
the speakers from her headset microphone. She was so breathless,
the recorded vocals drowned her out. Her voice was worse than
yesterday. And her lower back throbbed, the old injury taunting
The rehearsal at Le Beat was not going well.
"OK, guys, let's take a deep breath,"
the choreographer said, stopping the music.
Phoenix was grateful for the break. The label
hadn't paid for backup singers on this radio tour, much less
dancers -- but Sarge had convinced Manny to give her dancers in
St. Louis and at the Osiris. Hell, it's all coming out of your
end eventually, Phee, Sarge had reminded her. Dancers would
make the concerts look better, give Phoenix more dancing practice,
and give her and Sarge a chance to audition their choreographer
before the video shoot began.
But the choreographer Olympia was pushing for
too much too soon, trying to show off for Sarge. Phoenix had
studied a little dance in high school and had always been
rhythmic, but Olympia's finely regimented contortions took her
mind away from her voice, and apparently her voice needed more
attention. How could they perform this tomorrow night? How could
they dance at the Osiris, with only a week of rehearsals left
before that show?
Olympia sighed. The lithe, short-haired woman
was twenty-two, but something officious in her voice made her
sound like a Student Council president moonlighting as a B-girl.
"Guys, was that your way of telling me it's time for
That was the first good idea Phoenix had heard
Sarge was waiting for them in the club's tiny
conference room, standing against the wall with his arms crossed
as they filed in with their bags of lunch from Wendy's across the
street. Sarge was always her watchman and taskmaster, with his
shaven head, trademark skullcap, and mole-splotched face that
hadn't changed since her childhood. The only part of Sarge that
aged was his temper, which had gotten more brittle. Sarge gave her
a look: What's the problem?
Phoenix shrugged. She wasn't in the mood for
Sarge on an empty stomach. While she waited for the dancers to
negotiate whose food was whose, Phoenix's eyes studied the room's
wood-paneled walls, which were plastered with concert posters
dating back a decade. Everybody had been through here, apparently.
Nelly, of course. Chingy. Ginuwine. Lauryn Hill, from forever ago.
Even Gloria Gaynor, still surviving on a long-ago comeback tour.
This room reminded Phoenix of the Gallery of Greats in the Silver
Slipper, before her mother sold the club like she'd always
promised to. There was even a piano against the wall, like déjà
"I have a migraine after that sorry
display," Sarge told the group, as the dancers took their
seats in the plastic chairs, crowding the table. "Maybe since
this isn't New York or L.A., you think this show doesn't mean
shit. Well, there's no such thing as a small show. Maybe I
need to call my friend R.J., who's doing Ronn a solid even having
you on his stage, and tell him my crew isn't ready for Le
Sarge could go on all day.
Arturo sat sullenly beside Phoenix, stirring his
chili with a plastic spoon. The other two dancers were Olympia's
contacts, but Arturo was Phoenix's friend from high school, and
she always hired him when she had a chance. He was a great dancer,
perpetually underemployed. Arturo was six-four, a colossus who
could leap over a horse.
"Maybe you need to learn to let people eat
without all this noise," Arturo muttered, and Phoenix slapped
his thigh under the table.
Sarge pierced Arturo full force with The Ray.
"You know what? You're the first one I'm sending home. And
don't think I'm gonna have you in that video or on my stage at the
Osiris if this is the best you've got. I'll send you back
delivering those damn pizzas, or whatever the fuck you were doing
when Phoenix begged me to call you. You're not ready for this
Arturo's ego must be screaming, Phoenix thought.
She'd met him at Miami's New World School of the Arts when they
were both fourteen, and he was still one of the most dynamic
dancers she'd ever seen, able to make his body defy physics. After
studying dance on a college scholarship, he'd somehow ended up
back in Miami managing a Domino's Pizza. She didn't want Arturo to
blow this chance. She could take him with her, if only he'd get
out of his own way. Under the table, Phoenix squeezed her friend's
hand. Chill, sweetie. It's just Sarge.
As Sarge beckoned Olympia through the door to
tell her something privately, Arturo spoke close to Phoenix's ear.
"He's got it twisted if he thinks I'm a sissy queen shaking
in my shoes. I will take him outside to throw down, whether
he's your father or not," he said. Arturo had a low-pitched,
satiny voice that had always made Phoenix wish he weren't gay.
"No stress," Phoenix said. "It's
just trash talk, Arturo. You know Sarge."
He pecked her lips, standing. "Only for you
do I tolerate this, chica. Believe that."
The dancers rushed their lunch, since no one
wanted to wait for Sarge to come back, so Phoenix waited for her
father alone. She pulled one of the plastic chairs up to the piano
and tested the keys. Surprisingly, it was nearly in tune. She slid
her foot to the sustaining pedal and ran her fingers through a
hurried version of the largo from Dvoràk's From the New World
Symphony, which had been a recital piece her freshman year in
high school. Playing felt good, a chance for her fingers to dance.
She hadn't brought her red Roland AX-1 or Moog Liberation shoulder
keyboards for this tour, the first time ever. But there was no
substitute for a piano.
Phoenix didn't realize Sarge was behind her
until she heard his chuckle. "Haven't heard that in a
while," he said. "Your mama would be glad to know you
can still play it."
"By heart," she said, concluding with
the stately D-flat chord.
She played better than she sang, Phoenix
realized, and the thought made her spirits wane. In high school,
she had told Mom she would attend one of the arts colleges that
had been cramming her mailbox with solicitations by the time she
was a sophomore, Juilliard included. But when Phoenix was sixteen,
she decided she wanted to be a star like Janet Jackson, and
Juilliard didn't have classes on that.
The band Phoenix started in high school, Phoenix
& the New Fire, hadn't worked out, even with Sarge's contacts
and enough momentum to get bookings and a small record deal. Their
two CDs got great reviews (when they were reviewed), but
they never found an audience in R&B, pop, alternative or
anywhere else. Maybe she could have stuck it out like Lenny
Kravitz, waiting for the audience to find her, but there
were plenty of bands whose music was never heard, and never was a
long time. Sarge had known multiplatinum rapper G-Ronn since his
first tours, so when Ronn said he was looking for an R&B
singer, Sarge suggested her. Just like that. Now, Phoenix was
flying solo. And it's a long way down by myself, she
Sarge looked at her closely. "What time did
you get to sleep last night?"
"Late," Phoenix said, guiltily. Her
hair still smelled like strawberry bubble bath, and the scent
irritated her now. She'd been in such a hurry to get to rehearsal
that she'd barely said a word to that boy as she walked him to the
door, much less offered him a number. She wished she could erase
"You know better," Sarge said, as if
he knew everything. "Your voice sounds worn-out. Where's
"Probably at the hotel ordering room
service and watching pay-per-view."
"Tell her to stop wasting up our money,
hear? Ronn isn't paying our tab, and nobody here is rich. Your
advance has to last."
A hundred thousand dollars had sounded like a
fortune a year ago, but no more. Phoenix had banked a chunk of her
first major advance so she couldn't touch it, but she hated to
think about how much of the rest she had already spent. "I've
told her," Phoenix said.
"You should have left her home, Phee."
"Don't start, Sarge." Her cousin could
be a pain in the ass, no doubt, but without Gloria, the road would
be a cruel companion, beyond lonely. Sarge had agreed to Gloria's
presence on the tour, and Phoenix had agreed to give D'Real and
Ronn the creative direction of Rising. Most days, it hardly
seemed like a fair trade.
Phoenix heard the Egyptian string tracks from
"Party Patrol" squall through the open doorway as
Olympia queued up the CD. Although she'd heard it two hundred
times, Phoenix still felt a charge when her multitrack violin solo
came on the club's speakers. Kendrick was right about this song:
It was a hit-in-waiting. It didn't all belong to her, but a piece
"The show doesn't feel right yet, Sarge,"
Phoenix said. She almost called him Daddy, craving comfort,
but he preferred Sarge when they were working.
"It isn't right. But you'll get there. Give
it a couple more hours, and come back strong in the morning. We
have time to tighten it up before tomorrow night." Sarge had
promised never to bullshit her when it mattered, so she prayed
this was one of those times.
"The radio stuff is really splitting my
attention," she complained.
"There's no more radio interviews in St.
Louis. You got bumped because of the blues festival. You're a free
woman until the show."
Good. Canceled interviews would give her more
time to rehearse, rest and watch a couple movies with Gloria, even
if Ronn and the publicity department wouldn't like it. Publicity
is paper, Ronn always said. Even though she was sure Ronn had
nothing to do with the shooting that killed DJ Train's bodyguard
in Brooklyn, Ronn said he'd seen a big bump in his SoundScan
numbers because everybody said he was behind it. Publicity was
paper, all right. If anybody knew about money in the bank, it was
"I talked to Serena today," Sarge
said. "She's coming out to join us in L.A., and she says
she'll stay on through New York."
Phoenix hardly knew her two half brothers, but
Serena was a true sister despite their twenty-four-year age
difference. Phoenix had only seen Serena two or three times in the
past few years, and she'd been begging her to come on this
tour."She said she'll sing with me?"
"We'll work on that. For now, she says
she'll do your hair so you won't look so nappy."
Phoenix laughed. Serena owned a beauty shop in
Atlanta, and was a virtuoso with hair. Ronn wanted Phoenix to get
a more television-friendly weave, and Serena would hook her up. At
the moment, Phoenix's blowout Afro was a curly brown-red crown
reaching toward the sky, virtually untended. Not suitable for mass
consumption. Ronn hadn't said it quite that way, but that was what
"What about Mom?" Phoenix said.
"Call her yourself, but she still says
she's not coming until New York. Sorry, Peanut."
No surprise there. For years, on the rare
holiday occasions they all stayed in the Miami house, Mom slept in
the master bedroom and Sarge hibernated in the garage he'd
refinished for himself. Her parents were married only in name, and
probably had been longer than she'd known. Phoenix wondered how
much of her parents' long, slow drift she could blame on her
"I'm gonna go hit that stage again,"
"Save your voice for tomorrow night,
though. Work on your moves."
Sarge followed her through the doorway back out
to the cavernous nightclub, where the bass for "Party
Patrol" resounded like thunder.
Le Beat was a two-story nightclub bedecked in
mirrors and shiny poles against a black dance floor and dark
walls. The deejay booth lorded high over the stage like the
control panel of a space shuttle. They passed the VIP section just
beyond stage right, with a velvet rope partitioning off
Art-Deco-style furniture, the room's only bright colors. There
might be more than five hundred people there Friday night, the
club owner had told them, and the most important ones would be in
the VIP section: deejays, music writers, record buyers. The
Olympia was taking Arturo and the other two
dancers through the opening, which started with them lying flat on
their backs, thrusting their torsos high and leaping to their feet
after a B-boy-style spin. Phoenix could see that Arturo had taken
Sarge's criticism to heart: His motion was energetic and crisp,
the way she remembered him at New World. His body sailed through
the air, and he landed solidly, cranking his shoulders into the
next move, hitting his beats. The other two dancers looked like
children at play beside him. She could only imagine how lame she
must look trying to pull off Olympia's moves.
"Ronn knows I'm not Janet Jackson,
right?" Phoenix said to Sarge.
"You don't have to be. But trust Olympia.
She understands illusion, how to make you look like you're doing
more than you are. By the way, Arturo looks good. A little
discipline, and he'll shake things up when it's time to start
shooting that video."
"I know," Phoenix said, smiling.
Arturo's personality clashed with hers too much for a deeper
friendship, but she and Arturo had lived through a storm when
their friend Jay died of AIDS complications in high school. She
and Arturo had shared their first tragedy in common. "Could
you just ease off on him a little, Sarge? He's touchy."
"Why quit a tactic when it works?"
Sarge said, winking. "I'll think about it. Listen, where are
you going after rehearsal?"
"Back to the room with Gloria, I guess.
"I'm gonna make a call and set something up
"Please don't, Sarge. I'm tired."
"Not an interview. I want you to go to the
Scott Joplin House. It's near the hotel."
For an instant, Phoenix was sure her father was
just trying to get a rise out of her, but no smile cracked his
face as he gazed at the stage. It was bad enough rehearsals and
interviews were driving her into the ground, but in each new city
Sarge was trying to be a tour guide, too. In Atlanta, he'd dragged
her to the King Center when she'd barely gotten four hours of
sleep. In Memphis, the Lorraine Motel.
"Sarge, I said I'm tired."
"That's your own fault for staying up late.
It's a state historic site. I'd go, too, but I have to work my
phone. Gloria can drive you. Make her earn her damn keep for a
One oversight in Phoenix's quest for stardom had
been learning how to drive. She'd better hope she could
afford a driver one day. "OK, you're not hearing me. I can't
be running all over the place twenty-four/seven on some kind of
As always, her words seemed to have no effect on
Sarge, as if they were a wind gust he had to tolerate before he
spoke again. "Just go for an hour. You can't get where you're
going until you know where you've been, Phee." His voice
quieted as he locked their eyes. "Remember me telling you
about how you played that Joplin in your sleep? And the two of us
played a duet in the living room while your mom watched?"
It isn't fair to bring up those days,
"I wasn't asleep. I just don't remember
it," she said. The skin on her forearms fluttered every time
Sarge talked about that night. That year came with a slew of bad
memories: a long, boring hospital stay; painful therapy; and
worse, seeing for the first time how fragile her mother was,
understanding what a nervous breakdown was. That was a bad
And the story of the piano at the center of it
all scared the hell out of her. That damn thing had almost killed
her. And she'd never heard the pieces Sarge told her she'd
played in her sleep, much less should she have been able to play
them. She could hardly remember the piano anymore. If not for her
family's corroboration, she wouldn't believe it had happened. And
whatever it was, Phoenix didn't want to nudge it to see what else
"You need to go over there and pay your
respects," Sarge said. "That man helped open the door
for every one of us in music with black or brown skin. Simple as
"You say that about everybody."
"And it's true about everybody I say it
This was her punishment for hiring a former
Black Panther as her manager, Phoenix thought. Hell, this was her
punishment for hiring her father. Why was it so hard to
stand up to him? Gloria's right. I'm too old to be such a
Phoenix had forgotten Scott Joplin ever lived in
St. Louis, and she didn't care. She'd played a little of Joplin's
ragtime in high school as part of her classical piano curriculum,
but the happy syncopation sounded like the soundtrack to old
black-and-white movies, and she'd never even seen The Sting,
the movie Sarge told her had made Joplin internationally famous.
When it came to old music, Phoenix preferred blues. Or even jazz,
Sarge's favorite. Maybe Scott Joplin had been ruined for her that
night when she was ten, she thought.
What if you'll jinx yourself if you diss
Scott Joplin on his home turf? The last thing she needed
before this show was a jinx.
"OK, I'll go to the Joplin House. But this
is the last diversion, Sarge. I mean it."
"Good girl, Peanut," Sarge said,
grinning. "You won't be sorry."
I'm already sorry, Phoenix thought,
suddenly so weary she couldn't imagine another two minutes of
rehearsal, never mind two hours. Then, under her father's vigilant
eyes, Phoenix joined her dancers on the brightly lighted, waiting
Copyright © 2005 by Tananarive Due
Top of Page
Washington Post Review
"The Entertainers: The spirit of a great ragtime
composer appears to a rising R& B star."
Reviewed by Thrity Umrigar
Sunday, October 9, 2005; Page BW06
By Tananarive Due
Atria. 484 pp. $25
About halfway through Tananarive Due's new
novel, Joplin's Ghost , there is a sly
reference to Toni Morrison's Beloved . The
latter novel, of course, famously featured the ghost
of a baby born to a slave mother , who was symbolic
of the violent, genocidal history of African
American slaves. Due's novel also has a ghost, but
he is not an anonymous figure: He's the ghost of
Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, who died alone
and unremembered in a mental institution in 1917.
But like the ghost baby in Beloved , Joplin's ghost
is also a representative figure; he speaks for
countless black musicians who were cheated out of
the acclaim and fortune they deserved by the
pervasive and systemic racism of their time.
In Due's telling, decades after Joplin's
death, his ghost has found a soulmate across time
and space in the form of Phoenix Smalls, a young,
talented, ambitious black singer. After Phoenix's
first two R&B albums fail to hit the big time, she
signs up with a major record company, run by the
enigmatic Ronn Jenkins, a drug pusher turned movie
mogul. Phoenix knows she is standing on the cusp of
fame. She also knows that she has sold her soul to
get there -- that despite the relentless wheels of
her publicity machine, she is really an artist, not
So here they are -- the angry, desperate ghost
of a man who died without having his greatest
compositions heard by the public and a lost,
confused young woman who stopped listening to her
inner voice. The novel sizzles once they meet.
Due has undertaken a particularly hard task.
On the one hand, she has created a dead-on,
realistic depiction of the L.A. music scene. The
instant celebrity, the trappings of sudden wealth,
the gangster ethos, the gang warfare, the
projects-to-palaces stories are all told with a
sharpness and attention to detail that reveal Due
for the journalist she was. On the other hand, Due
deals with the supernatural, with psychics and
ghosts and out-of-body experiences that in the hand
of a lesser writer might have left readers rolling
their eyes. She pulls it off. Due's writing is spare
but incredibly visual. She keeps her flights of
fancy grounded to her story. Her matter-of-fact
approach to the supernatural makes it easy for us to
The novel documents Joplin's decline in the
last several years of his life and Phoenix's ascent
as she climbs the ladder of stardom -- parallel
stories about two troubled musicians whose gifts are
prodigious and whose burdens are heavy. But here the
similarities end. Joplin is an uncompromising
genius, acutely aware of how a racist society has
pigeon-holed him as a ragtime composer when he longs
to write the definitive African American opera.
Phoenix, meanwhile, lives in a time when blacks own
musical empires, but she knows that she has
sacrificed her values at the altar of success. The
ghost and the young singer both have something to
offer each other.
Despite this blending of a historical
character with a fictional one, Due manages to make
both of them come alive. Readers unfamiliar with
Joplin may find themselves wondering which parts of
this story are historical facts and which are born
from Due's fertile imagination, but as improbable as
some aspects of Joplin's life seem, much of what the
novel describes is true. Indeed, what makes
Joplin's Ghost more than just a ghost story is
Due's sense of musical and cultural history. In one
of the novel's most moving passages, Phoenix
consoles Joplin with a recitation of other giants
who followed in his footsteps -- people like Miles
Davis and Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye and Ella
Fitzgerald. Due names much of the canon of black
musical greats, and it's as if she is reciting the
history of this country.
Even while she brings to life Scott Joplin the
man, Due makes us appreciate Scott Joplin the icon,
the symbol. This understanding gives Joplin's
Ghost its haunting power. ·
Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novel,
"Bombay Time." Her new novel, "The Space Between
Us," will be published in January.