Sleek and pinned-back as a ballerina, Eva strode through the Great Hall of Waters, efficiently hiding hurt. She was a living ad for sexiness and blithe self-sufficiency, an earthbound overlord of sun and stars. Eva was at the Lost City Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, and Eva had to pee.
She clicked past a casino’s smoked windows and stepped into a lobby restroom of the Coral Towers. In a mirror, Eva checked her quick grimace for smudges, then, from the knot at her nape, deftly pulled bangs across half one eyebrow and fully over the other.
I look good. It’s all about singularity, attitude, and lotsa panache. Plus the sit-ups. And the Tuscan pollen face cream with olive oil.
Eva took a long glance at the doors guarding toilets. She tightened up, decided to hold it. Decided the tension would keep her on her toes.
Her cell chirped. A 206 number flashed on the caller ID.
She watched the number until it faded. Eva’s new phone fit in her palm like a secret, and she could reach out and be reached wherever she was in the world. Absently, she ran her thumb over the phone’s buttons. Eva believed the cell tripled her productivity and her freedom.
She walked through the Corals toward The Lagoon Bar & Grill, which had been closed to the public for the night to house Showcase Savoir Faire. Eva wasn’t one to sweat promptness. It wasn’t a priority in the music industry. But on this night, she was desperate to get to a show, and with its bright lights, The Lagoon shone like a sanctuary. Eva felt thin-skinned and distracted by the independence of her insides. But if she could get to the showcase in time to handle what she was supposed to as associate general manager of Roadshow Records, and get there looking flawless, it might matter less that she was probably pregnant.
In the Coral Lounge Atrium Lobby, Eva’s cell rang again and she quickly answered the familiar 212 number. “It’s Eva,” she said airily, like the caller should be lucky for the connection.
“All on track?” It was Eva’s boss, Judeo-Spanish Sebastian, calling from New York. Judeo-Spanish was the first thing that came to mind about Sebastian because he always talked about Judeo-Spanish history and how, among other honors, Judeo-Spanishness should have a month of its own. He was raised in Arizona, spoke fluent Español. He went to mass on Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve, and demanded a kosher town house at the same time he demanded ebony vertical blinds. He loved to turn cocktail conversation into an homily about how he was a true Sephardic, a converso, a sabatista descended from Jews forced to convert to Catholicism and flee Spain way back in Columbus’s time.
God bless him, Eva often thought. But it’s old.
“Yep,” Eva said to him, “all on track.”
“Sunny’s hype? And you’re sure about these changes to the show, this—”
“I’m sure.” Don’t say “hype,” when you’ve never been, in your life. You hired me to oversee the so-called urban acts so you wouldn’t have to attend Showcase Savoir Faires. Let me do my thing. Sunny was Roadshow’s barefoot, yoga-preaching, tie-dyed, incense-burning superstar singer. Sunny was Eva’s responsibility.
“I don’t have to tell you how much rides on this,” Sebastian said. “It’s not just the money, though it is that . . . it’s Sunny . . . she could . . . you know her contract situation better than I do.”
Don’t patronize. “It’s all going to work out. I’m sure of it.” Almost.
“Everybody’s contracts are about up—yours . . . mine.”
Yours pays you out in the millions. Mine— “It’s fine, Seb, all fine. I need to—”
“Go, go! We’re pulling for you back here, Evey. You’re the moneymaker.”
My name is Eva. The tink-tinkle of a nearby fountain caused Eva to tighten up again. But to pee would stab her with the fact that she should be taking the pregnancy test she had in her suite. It would put her in warm wet touch with a life-and-death decision. She walked past another restroom.
“See you when?” Sebastian broke the silence. “Day after tomorrow? Evey?”
“Yes, Seb, for sure.” Eva hated Sebastian’s wheedle. Why wheedle from a position of power?
“You’re my girl,” he said atypically, like she might confirm her loyalty. “You know that. My ace.”
“I’m at the venue,” Eva said. He’d set off an alarm in her brain. She thought he might be overcompensating for something, or that he’d somehow peeped her weakness.
Plus, Eva was actually in front of a store at the Crystal Court: duty-free shopping, local stoneware, and lavishly printed Bahamian picture books. She stared through the window with her jaw tight. Eva heard Sebastian say, “Hit me back later,” as she took in the store’s main display—a basket stuffed with two magnums of champagne, and a tray of chocolates big as a briefcase. The shrink-wrapped basket sat above a sign: the ultimate gift: pure indulgence.
Eva had one on the vanity in her suite. Card signed, ron.
Dead cell still at her ear, Eva stared at the package.
That lazy motherfucker.
I got your ultimate gift.
The showcase had begun. Almost everyone attending the Vince the Voice Urban Music Takes Over the World: International Marketing for the Millennium convention was packed into a pergola surrounded by a moat filled with real sharks and stingrays. Mostly there were middle-aged eastern and midwestern radio executives at The Lagoon—hometown heroes just town-bound enough to relish Paradise Island for its medley of mock and real splendor. Beneath a ceiling painted to look watery and filled with things thalassic, they drank and ate freely and for free, celebrating year-end bonuses and the heaven of a seventy-five-degree December evening.
At the bar, there were major and minor executives from major and minor record labels. These people had not only shopped for Prada and Zegna at stateside stores, they’d trudged Milan’s Via Spiga lugging ribbon-tied bags and stopping for risotto at trattorias mentioned in magazines. These were Eva’s cronies, and most were notorious either for having seen a project to multiplatinum fruition, or for having run it, burning, into the ground. The ones accorded the most deference had lucratively brought an artist back from the hushed hell of irrelevance. Eva’d done it twice in her career. It was a mission that required an array of exaggerated expressions (including a steadfast poker face), plus experience, contacts, timing, dirt done (and so markers on call), providence, perceived and real power, and luck. Plus the ability to persuade, counsel, negotiate, and straight-out lie—all while seeming to tipsily shoot the breeze.
She was on the brink of a less colossal exercise, but Eva was fighting industry talk of Sunny’s burnout, of Sunny’s disenchantment with Roadshow, and of Sunny’s lack of appreciation for her mostly black fan base. Industry talk had a way of seeping out to the record-buying public, so Eva had been charged—by herself and, to a lesser degree, by Sebastian—with the mission of bringing Sunny back to black. How Eva would articulate such a skill on her résumé she’d work out when the time came. But she had a plan and it was about to go into effect at Showcase Savoir Faire.
Out of respect, Eva’d sent personal invitations for Sunny’s showcase to influential execs from other labels, and she was gratified to see her occasional mentor, Meri “Ms. Exception” Heath, duck in. There were also programmers there from MTV and BET, and columnists, mostly from the trades. Sunny secretly loved being interviewed and written about, dissected, and pseudo-psychoanalyzed, so at Roadshow’s expense, a few high-ranking consumer magazine editors had been flown down. It was a recoupable expense for her company, which meant Sunny was paying for them.
Eva had slaved in artists and repertoire, in marketing, and in radio promotions. She’d worked in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Her current position at Roadshow afforded her a bland, professionally decorated three-bedroom on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, as well as a duplex in Santa Monica, where Eva had installed a stone-trimmed fireplace far too big for her gleaming living room. Eva’d barely been at either place since she’d signed Sunny. There was always another business trip she could take, something more she could be doing for her salary of $531,000 a year, and her “points” on Sunny’s albums. For every CD sold, and in addition to her salary, Eva made a couple of cents. In addition to managing a small staff, and being responsible for a hefty portion of Roadshow’s profit margin, what Eva did for this money, when it came down to it, was attend to Sunny. Eva was quite clear on the fact that any labels’ self-depiction—that it was a genuine sponsor for its artists—was bogus, and that the only fair payments record companies made were to those acts who had the means to coerce accountability.
Eva looked up at the slaty clouds and placed her hand briefly over her navel. Sunny, Eva thought, has the means.
So Eva was able to look Sunny in her face, most of the time, with some ease.
In a wraparound white silk jersey dress, Eva stood at The Lagoon’s bar on four inches of stiletto. Across her foot, where her toes began, was a white kid braid. Another, with the help of a tiny gold buckle, fastened above her ankle. Nicks decorated Eva’s shins—trophies from long-ago softball afternoons. Each of her ears was pierced once, but her skin was otherwise pure; not so much as a strawberry mark, or a ladybug of a mole. Her neckline plunged, but Eva had on a reliable, Swiss-lace, half-cup bra. Lifts ’em up round and high. Shows everything but itself. These younger chicks, even the ones with a check—still wearing dresses from mall stores and Playtex brassieres. Eva was as comfortable in her outfit as she was in a jogging suit. She strode and stood in her teetery sandals like they were rubber-soled. Been doing this a long time.
In walked Ron. Eva liked that Ron was gruff and clever and that he didn’t care that people knew he was a sneak. Eva liked his wide, firm body. He was president of urban music at one of the major record labels. Properly late and properly dapper, Ron had his palm on the back of a former MC, a pretty girl who’d had one regional hit and then faded from the public eye, but not completely from Ron’s. That she was his choice for the Bahamas made sense, as the girl was from nearby Tampa. Eva’d heard the girl was teaching elementary school, and a recent Where-Are-They-Now?-type radio show had mentioned that the Tampa teacher had “renounced music and the business that was killing it.”
Yeah, Eva thought. Right. More like mad that her singles never hit outside of Florida.
Tampa homegirl was thick and pretty. Hair pinned in an elegant bun, she had on an ill-fitting, expensive orange dress.
Blocky sandals, probably from Macy’s. Nails done by Koreans. Tacky.
Ron guided his date to a choice table. She wore the tetchy face of a sister who’d be happier laid up in front of a movie on her suite’s pay-per-view.
A bartender was trying to catch Eva’s eye. She knew he wanted to offer her something special.
Ron nodded sharply at Eva, face tight because he knew the situation called for it. Once Tampa MC’s face was turned, Ron glanced at Eva conspiratorially.
No doubt, Eva thought. I’m in on it.
Ron walked to Eva at the bar, ordered a cognac and a champagne cocktail. “You got the stuff?”
“Don’t fuck with me.” He was breezy, watching his drinks being made. “That champagne basket. For later.”
“You look busy, sweets. Doing the most, as usual.”
“Huh? She’s been here. Got her over at the Hurricane Club. Away from all this bullshit.”
“Away from me.” It was a slipup and Eva felt it, like she’d tumbled off her heels.
“You? Oh I know you don’t trip off . . . me . . . girls, women, whatever. I’m talking about . . . all these people. She hates it.”
“She thinks it’s fake.” Now Eva wanted her something special. “She’s real.”
Ron picked up his cocktails, turned to walk back to his table. “She don’t understand it.”
And she doesn’t want to. Eva finally looked directly at the bartender. “What you got for me?” She toyed with the snarl of yarn and bead bracelets on her left wrist.
“Little gin with coco water,” the guy said, smiling. “Good for you.”
Eva shook her head. “You got a nice single malt?”
“He’s got whatever you want,” Hakeem said, knuckle suddenly, softly on the outside of her thigh. “And pour me a vanilla rum. Same as before.” Hakeem was a consultant, an old-school music impresario, and Eva’s boy from way back.
Six years ago, Hakeem had been accused of mishandling funds and was asked to resign. He retained boisterous lawyers, and went to the urban and the white press screaming about “the plantation system,” and the “Jim Crow setup” in the record business. He detailed salary discrepancies between the “pop” and the “urban” departments for jobs with the same titles and tasks. Until he was called on the carpet, Hakeem had never complained. So his own staff only vaguely supported him when he went Al Sharpton. The theory everyone operated from was that Hakeem was sitting on $15 million. It was 1998, though, and he still wore linen like the dry-clean-only status symbol it had been for brothers in the eighties—stiffly pressed to a sheen.
“Where you been?”
“Looking for you,” Hakeem said. “Smoke with me.”
Unsmiling, the bartender put both drinks on the bar.
“Evey! Baby!” Myra strolled up, laughing. A tiny tape recorder dangled from a rhinestone strap at her wrist. Sunny’s brother D’Artagnan was with her, and it looked like he was holding blood in his mouth. Dart seemed taller. Less heavy. Eva hadn’t seen him in four months. She talked to him on the phone all the time, business, but their curt conversations had revealed nothing of his transformation. The last time she’d seen him—In Toronto, Eva thought, for some meeting with some producers—he’d been his usual bulging self, in decent sprits, but always watching the door, or for a gap in conversation, anything through which he could escape his job as Sunny’s manager.
Fixed to Dart’s slab of a back was a tangerine shirt, wet and glued to a wetter sleeveless white undershirt. Sweat wept at his temples. Sweat dripped from the top of his flat nose.
Crybaby, Eva thought. Control yourself.
“I’ve been searching all over for you,” Myra said, wagging her recorder at Eva like it was finger. “D’Artagnan’s trying to get me drunk! Ha! He don’t know the blocks I been around.”
“Miss Myra,” Eva said dryly with open arms. “Queen of All. In the house to see my girl set shit off.” Myra’d been running her own so-called marketing company for eleven years. But she didn’t have clients. Mostly she hosted cocktails—little in-things at which attendance was required in order to gain her good graces. Her clout rested in a gossipy, preachy weekly column—“Square Biz”—mass-faxed to everyone in urban music. Myra had long-standing associations with the United Negro College Fund, Soul Train, and the Congressional Black Caucus. She was petted and patronized and often paid as a consultant by casting directors and potential corporate sponsors. Myra led them toward trendily yet completely clothed artists who lamented in interviews about the state of the youth and the injurious, embarrassing nature of gangsta rap. Myra’s faves publicly craved “positivity” for the Community, so, after Chevy or Bud phoned Myra for a high sign, Chevy or Bud called the artist’s manager: You want to be a part of our concert tour? We’d like to use a song of yours in a commercial for our new sedan. Then glasses clinked. Myra clocked her dollars and her power points. Eva would sit back at these buttery post-contract-signing lunches and calculate how much authenticity her artist was trading. She’d figure out from which pile her own money would be made.
At the showcase, Myra was sparkly and important. “Yes, sweetums. Here strictly for Sunny. And my expectations are high-high-high.” Myra gave a little cackle, and then looked at Eva more directly. “I know you’re not nervous.”
“Never that,” Eva said. Eva liked Myra, but hadn’t trusted her for years.
“You all right? You look fabulous as usual.”
Eva squared her shoulders, resurrected her game face, and showily hitched up her already high breasts. “I am fine, sister. I know you know how I do.”
Dart slid up to the bar next to Eva. Got the bartender’s attention, asked for tonic with lime. Dart looked at Eva with hazy interest. She was the busty cover of a how-to he’d half-read.
“Good boy,” Eva said to him after a sweet wink good-bye to Myra. “Keeping your mind on the job.”
“What job?” Dart said.
“Taking care of Sun.” Eva took a swallow of Scotch as Hakeem and Myra discussed the details of their earlier weed purchase. “If you’d ever do it.”
“This ain’t the place to discuss.” Then Dart pressed Eva’s wrist, as if to convey that what came next was an authentic request, apart from the mise-en-scène. “Talk with me about my so-called job,” D’Artagnan said, “later.”
Eva finished her drink. I’m probably giving the baby defects. She looked again to the bartender. “Tall glass of still water, please?”
Ron came up behind Eva, put a bearish hand on her back, and reached out the other to shake Dart’s. “How’s Sun?” Ron said as greeting. It was usually the first thing people said to Dart.
“She’s doing her thing,” he said. “Like always.” Dart returned Ron’s handshake in the robotic way it had been offered. Dart watched Ron move his hand to the top of Eva’s ass, watched as Eva, seemingly untouched, looked with weary eyes into the door-size mirror over the bar. Dart pushed Eva her water, looked at her with his brows in a frown.
In the mirror, Eva saw a huddle of young guys hustle up to seersuckered Ron, urging him to go with them.
The looks on their faces, Eva thought. They want to be him so badly they’d eat shit. They are eating shit. But at least they’re eating it in the Bahamas.
After a meaningful pinch to Eva’s waist, Ron made his way, handshaking all the time, backstage. He kissed Myra grandly, full on the lips. Hugged Hakeem like he was a long-lost cousin. Ron was to go onstage, introduce his already successful new act, and talk about his plans for them.
It was also time for Eva to check on Sunny. As Eva rose, Dart said, “I’ma stay with Myra for a minute.”
Myra turned when she heard her name. “Yes, babeee, see me to my table. I know Sunny’s got me someplace nice.”
Eva zigzagged through the crowd with as few Hollywood hugs as she could manage, and it still took fifteen minutes. Amid the jump and jabber of backstage, Sunny spoke to Eva from behind a paper screen attached to the ceiling. “Yes, I’m dressed,” Sunny said, annoyed with the rough setup. “Yes, I’m ready.”
Eva hated that Sunny could hear the loud applause for Ron’s group as they left the stage. Like evangels summoning saints, Ron’s trio shouted out Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., “We all gotta come together now. We gotta do it for hip hop!”
How about we all gotta be not quite so wack? How about we all gotta stop biting ’Pac’s style? How about we gotta realize—just like jazz, just like grunge, just like punk, just like what fools still call “rock”—hip hop is over, dead, finished, and we’re still in costume, in denial?
Then Myra and Dart came backstage. And Hakeem. And then Ron was nearby, backslapping. Eva barely heard him, but she heard him mutter to someone, “Tie-dye . . . rose petals, yoga. Same . . . barefoot Sunny shit. Played out.”
Fuck him. I got his tie-dye.
“This is gonna work, right?” Sunny asked. Before Eva could answer, Sun said exactly what Eva would have: “These fools, they’ll see.”
So Eva left Sunny’s side to boss the crew’s placement of the yoga stuff. It was Sunny’s thing—to do, and to command audiences to stretch into yoga positions from the stage. In her heels and white dress, Eva rearranged ropes and rolled mats. Pushed forward the microphone stand. Dart was spacey, as he could be sometime. But he could at least help me make sure the set is right. Is this what it is to be associate GM? It was all Eva knew: to do. To overdo. To keep her bat high and her eye on every ball in the vicinity. She dusted her hands on the back of her outfit.
Sun’s small band trudged onstage, bulky and uncomfortable looking in baggy black pants and huge work shirts. For the giant cones of incense Sunny usually burned, tall white urns were placed onstage. All this was done, purposefully, with the stage lights up.
The convention chairman came over and told Eva it was time. He was a spry eighty and owned a tiny, trendsetting soul station outside Cleveland. Eva looked at Dart. He got it, and with his biggest voice, began to clear backstage.
“EVERYBODY out.” Dart was even louder than usual. In his regular tones he said to Eva, “Giving it my best ’cause it’s my last time around.”
But Eva barely acknowledged Dart’s usual escape plans because her ears were tuned to Myra’s voice. “Drama queen Sunny,” Myra cooed to a colleague. “Behind that paper like the Queen of Sheba.”
“Sunny needs backstage CLEAR. NOW.” The audience could hear Dart, which was a large part of the point. His bottomless voice was such that even Myra and Hakeem scuttled off.
Sunny’s band silenced their tune-up when Eva stepped onstage to catcalls. It took only two flashing camera bulbs to get her mind right.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Eva said coolly into the microphone, “I give you Roadshow Records’ number one artist for the last two years in a row. I give you one of the best singer-songwriters of our time. I give you a two-time Grammy winner. I give you a two-time Soul Train Award winner. I give you an American Music Award winner, and an MTV Music Video Award winner.” Swingy and confident, Eva delivered her spiel like the pro she’d become after thirteen years in the record business. Plus she’d seen her father perfect pitches for everything from juicers to desert real estate. Don’t convince anyone of anything, he used to say. Say it like you’re saying grass is green. Say it half-exasperated, but like you’re gracious enough to remind them of the obvious. Then they’re indebted. “I give you an artist,” Eva continued after a contrived sigh, “grateful to all her friends at urban and Top Forty radio, grateful to MTV and BET, grateful to the urban press and the pop press.” Eva took a big, exaggerated breath. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the woman who showed you the way to a Bliss Unknown. Who introduced you to Poems on Various Subjects. A young woman, who, after a debut that remained in the number one slot for fourteen weeks, remained in the top ten for another forty-three. A singer-songwriter who has sold thirty-seven million albums worldwide. Ladies and gentlemen of radio, I give you a—”
“Um, Eva?” There was some satisfied laughter from the audience. “You’re going on,” Dart said, “kind of long.” Rumbling from the public address system, his tones were otherworldly. People clapped and hooted. No one could see Dart, but they knew his voice. Knew his role as Sunny’s protector. Had heard that he took no cut of Sunny’s money. People operated on the theory that Dart and Eva were still having an affair. The music industry was performance on all levels, so Eva and Dart were the show within the show.
“Oh, am I?” Eva put a hand on a hip. Shtick all the way for detonating trade magazine flashbulbs. Eva stretched her mouth, tried to show every tooth she had. It was the way to look genuinely enthusiastic. A photographer’d told Eva that long ago, and it was the kind of tip she held onto. “Well then, Dart—honey,” she said. “I guess you better take on over.”
He waited a beat. Then: “I thought so.”
People started to laugh more loudly—the beautiful Evil Eva had been put in her place. Then the lights were black. The crowd startled into sudden, short silence. The lights hadn’t gone to complete black all night. Eva dashed offstage. All was going to plan.
Dart’s voice boomed again from the PA. “There’s no worry about the dark when we’ve got our own light. MY SISTER . . .”—he started speaking more slowly, and more like a professional announcer—“the SUN . . . is about to . . . RISE!”
The lights went up. And amid the yoga clutter stood Sunny in a pale yellow georgette dress. The Empire waist hid her hips and not-quite-flat belly. The dress was cut just off her lustrous shoulders, and beads winked from her bodice. A layered skirt split in front to display a shimmering gold sheath underneath, hem bent against the floor. Sunny wore her hair tight off her face and bursting from the back of her head in a pouf of dangling tendrils. Gone was the puffy ponytail. Gone were the faded overalls and tie-dyed tank. Eva thought for a second that people might not even know it was Sunny.
The keyboardist hit one chord and the band stood.
He hit another and they yanked off the work shirts to reveal tuxedo jackets and bow ties.
One more chord and the band took a slow bow. They started at the same time, stopped, and came back up. In unison. The crowd, especially for an industry crowd, went wild.
Damn! We love it when things happen in unison. We love a goddamn talent show.
The keyboardist banged another rich chord and the lights went dark again. There were gasps.
Eva smiled in the darkness, and this time it wasn’t so wide, but was far more true. Lights up again, and the stage crew ran out and removed all the yoga stuff. They placed long-stemmed white lilies in the urns. This took seven seconds. The audience was enthralled.
“All right, Sunny, you better work it out!” Someone shouted it from near the front, and claps popped off like firecrackers.
Then Dart walked onstage and slipped on his sister’s wrist a corsage of miniature lilies. Sun looked like a prom queen. Dart gave her a kiss on her cheek, and then a little bow. As he walked off, Dart handed Myra a lily from the stage. The whole plot was Eva’s idea.
Put that in your goddamn column, Myra. Headline: SUN SHINES!
The house was dark again, except for a soft spot on Sunny.
No more incense. No tired rose petals. Now what, assholes? Now what?
The band played the first bars of a classic early eighties slow jam from an R & B group honed long ago in a Memphis studio. Sunny began to sing. No microphone.
At the chorus, an older guy walked on stage to a standing ovation. It was a brother who’d been part of the popular Memphis group. During the mid-eighties, he’d gone solo to worldwide acclaim. The guy did two concerts a year: one free outdoor show in his rural hometown, and another in Vegas, at $300 a seat.
Don’t call it a comeback, Eva thought, in L.L. Cool J’s fadeless words. I been here for years.
The star and Sun picked up mikes and sang together. Sunny’s band picked up the pace and pumped up the volume. She’d pretty much recomposed the song—modified it harmonically, added bass, left out the synthesized strings and the sax bridge. The older guy raised his brows in places, startled by Sun’s stuttered phrasings in the last chorus, but by the last soaring notes, the man was smiling. His eyes wet, face shiny, and artist’s soul flattered: Sun had taken his song seriously, treated it with creativity and respect.
Eva was elated. So much could’ve gone wrong. It’s not a new trick, taking it back to the old school, but it can still work.
In his too-tight suit, the tenor took a bow, waved graciously, then went to a table in the front near Myra and Hakeem and Dart. By staying for the rest of the show, the singer blessed Sunny. There was stomping from the audience, and barking.
“Lilies ev-er-ee-where,” Sunny cooed. People quieted quickly, eager, after the extreme makeover, for a bit of Original Sunny, conveyor of arcane, vaguely mystical knowledge. The speech was important. Eva had written it after she and Sun came up with the lily idea together. Sunny had practiced it down to the pauses between sentences, just as they’d choreographed every inch of the performance. Eva thought the speech would ward off naysayers who’d claim Sun had sold out in a chiffon dress. Forgotten herself. It was the main trick required of successful entertainers—no matter how much money you made or how differently you felt or how differently people treated you, you could never not be the same person you were when you were searching for a deal. Even if you hated that person, she was the core of the story fans fell in love with. The rule—for purveyors of soul and realness—was to not sell out, even when everyone was buying you. “Unplanted by human hands, lilies appear on graves of people executed for crimes they didn’t even commit. Lilies protect gardens from evil spirits. To dream of lilies in spring foretells marriage, happiness, and prosperity.” And then with a small laugh, she said, “And the Romans cured calluses with the juice from lily bulbs—so you know I like lilies!”
For clarity and length, Eva’d nixed some of the other lily myths. Legend tells that the lily sprang from Eve’s tears, when upon being expelled from Eden she learned she was pregnant. In China, the daylily is the emblem for motherhood.
The folks down front were delighted.
There were shouts of “Where’s your feet, Sun?”
“You got shoes on with that dress?
“Sunny, show your toes! Even if they got corns!”
Backstage, Ron looked at Eva like he was bored. Then, with mock affection, he embraced a minor rap duo—DJ Victorious and MC Swansong—now too old to ever even go gold. They’d devolved into almost pure hangers-on, and Vic, especially, hung on to Sunny whenever she called him.
So Eva looked at Ron like he was boring. Then her attention went back to Sunny. All her new songs were covers of liquid seventies and eighties ballads, and her medley struck a chord with this group. They were pleased Sun had shown respect for what came before her. By recording songs written by artists who’d peaked back when Michael Jackson was the only black singer selling tens of millions of albums, Sunny was making old heroes some new money. Plus, the radio execs at The Lagoon would go home and program Sun’s covers because they’d want to hear the songs they’d grown up listening to.
Finally, Sunny sang her own “Imagination.” It was the first song Eva had heard Sunny sing, and her biggest hit. It was about an outsider lonely child’s journey toward her authentic self and the tainted loves she imagines she’ll have along the way. By the last verse, the lonely child loves herself and that love opens the door for a true, lasting love relationship built on respect and passion and acceptance. Sunny put the mike down and blew it out like she liked to, with no music behind her at all. Sunny sang “Imagination” because the crowd always wanted it, and the reason people wanted it was because Sunny sang the song like it would die inside her without liberation. Heads nodded slowly. Hands rested on forgotten cocktails. Eva felt privileged to watch and hear Sunny, overcome by the fact that she was a part of bringing Sunny to the world.
As she closed the last soft notes of her theme song, sweat glowed on her forehead, and Sunny lifted, like a princess about to ascend a staircase, the front hem of her dress to her knees.
Sunny’s feet were bare. Like always.
Where is the line? Between authenticity and act? Is this a pure moment? Or is it corrupt and fake because of the choreography, the plan?
Please, stand, people! My life will be so much easier if I’m not pregnant, and if you all just stand up.
The crowd leaped to a standing ovation.
Eva laughed loud and big and no one could hear her over the applause and shout-outs.
“Love you, Sunny!”
“We love you!”
“Sun, rise! Sun, rise! Sun, rise!”
Sunny basked in the chant until it almost faded, then she faced her palms to the crowd. “Thank you all. A special thanks to my friend—” she held her hand out to the Memphis star who stood and kissed it. Sun put her hand over her heart like she would die of the beauty. “I’d like to thank my brother Dart, of course, and Roadshow. I’d like to thank all of you at radio for—”
“You got it, Sunny!”
“Straight to number one!”
“We’ll be rocking you in Chi-Town, Sunny!”
“Birmingham’s been down since day one!”
Eva felt Ron in the wings beside her. She looked at him, and he gave her a clandestine thumbs-up. Eva pressed down in herself the urge to kiss his face.
“There’s another person I want to thank,” Sunny said. “You all know Eva.”
Copyright © 2005 by Danyel Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.