Cork

by Lynne Weiss

It had been Mr. Cheek’s idea to audition at Keith’s, but Josie was the one who clapped her hands together and said “yes!” when Keith asked them if they had ever worked in cork. She didn’t mean it as a lie, though it came out as one. The “yes” was not an answer to Keith’s question, because Josie never had worked in cork. The “yes” was her expression of delight at the prospect of corking up, because when Josie thought of putting on blackface makeup, she thought of Bob Cole. She had seen pictures of Cole on sheet music covers. He was a Negro whose dark makeup emphasized his outsized facial expressions. His broad grin and wide eyes exuded more than happiness. They embodied life, vigor, feeling. Josie longed to hear Cole’s voice. She imagined it a trumpet blare of triumph, and she imagined it a sound that she might make if her face was painted like his, but after she expressed her delight at the prospect to Keith, she knew she had made a mistake. Mr. Cheek turned slowly, more slowly than she had ever seen him turn before, and looked toward her but not at her.

“What’s wrong?” Keith’s waxed moustache seemed to smile, but there was no smile in his eyes or on his lips.

For a moment no one spoke. Josie had no idea what was wrong. She looked at Mr. Cheek. She was always looking at Mr. Cheek. Her eyes clung to him. Even when he was angry with her, as he seemed to be now, she found the sight of him sweet and sustaining.

Mr. Cheek turned away from Josie and looked at Keith. “Cork,” he said and his voice was flat. “I’ve done it.” He sounded as though he was confessing to a crime, but Keith did not seem to notice.

“Wonderful,” he said. “We’ll see how you do.”

On the day of their first performance, Mr. Cheek came into her dressing room to show her how to burn a couple of corks and mash the charred pieces into a powder he mixed into face cream.

“Start here,” Mr. Cheek said, his voice dull and quiet. He drew a line of black down the center of her nose. The cream melted into her skin beneath his finger, and she thought she might melt as well, nearly hypnotized by the pleasure of his touch on her face, but as usual, Mr. Cheek was all business. “Rub it across your cheeks and over your forehead,” he continued. “Don’t get too close to your eyes.”

She sat with her back to the mirror so he could sit in front of her and paint her face. She could not see herself, only him – his chin, his forehead, his hair, his ears, his mouth. Mr. Cheek stared at her face as he worked, but she knew he did not see her, just her skin and the paint. He might have been polishing a finial on a banister. His eyes were vacant as he smoothed the cream into her chin and then her temples.

“I expect they’ll want us both to be stupid, unless they decide I should be smart and vicious.” He grimaced toward the black grease. “You’ll either be stupidly stupid, or stupid and loose.”

“They?” Her voice was dreamy, relaxed by the soft pressure of his fingers as they worked the color into her skin.

“The audience,” he said. “The audience and Keith.”

She didn’t understand what he meant, but she thought of the word loose as he massaged the cream into her hairline. Was that what he wanted, too? He had complained again and again over the last three days that she was too stiff. He told her to relax, to let go. Loose. She savored the sound as he painted her lips with crimson and smoothed white zinc around her eyes. Her mother had muttered that word under her breath as a woman in a grimy skirt staggered out of a tavern that stank of hops and cigars. The word started like love and could have slipped into the whisper of loss, but the two o’s stumbled over each other and smashed against the s with a hiccup.

The paint had an acrid, smoky smell. On sheet music covers Bob Cole wore tails, oversized pants held up with suspenders, and a white dress shirt. She thought the shirt must smell of soap and steam and starch, the way Miz Roberts did when she delivered the laundry.

“You forget,” Mr. Cheek said softly. “I have to decide every day who I’ll be.”

“Why?” she blurted. “You look…”

He touched his finger to her lips to stop her from speaking and nodded toward the hallway. He seemed always either annoyed that people thought he was white or worried that they would realize he was a Negro. She did not understand why it mattered. He looked white. She wanted him to be white, and she could not comprehend why he did not accept his appearance as reality. Or perhaps, she thought, looking into his gold-flecked eyes, he didn’t mean he had to decide whether to be black or white. She had cajoled him into giving up teaching to sing duets with her. He said he would do it for her. For her voice. Now she wondered whether he would keep singing with her if it meant blacking up.

He wiped the excess color from the brush with a cloth and put it back in its pot, bristles up.

“Done.” He sounded sad. She turned to look at herself in the small mirror over her dressing room counter as he passed behind her to leave.

“Mr. Cheek,” she said. She didn’t try to keep the panic out of her voice. He was standing behind her, and in the mirror she saw his fists clenched by his side, unmoving. She stared at her face in the mirror. Everything should have been the same – the shape of her nose, the width of her brow – but her own face frightened her. How could a simple change to the color of her skin make such a difference?

Mr. Cheek slipped out of the room. She stared at herself, slowly turning her face this way and that, opening her eyes wider and then narrowing them. She stood and pulled the nappy wig over her hair. She did not know the girl in front of her. She put on the patched-up pinafore Mrs. Keith had given her. She reached toward the mirror to see whether the image before her reached out as well, and she touched her palms to the palms in the glass. She shivered to think that she might have become the darkie who knew the pain those Foster songs expressed so sweetly.

She pushed against the glass as though it were a door she could move, and as she pushed, something opened in her. She heard the pathos and longing of the Foster songs as she wanted to sing them. She had seen people weep when she sang in school concerts back in Nettleton. She had seen people move toward her, drawn to her voice like bees to nectar, for lesser songs than Foster’s when she was a plugger in the train station. Once a lady in a violet-trimmed hat told her she had missed her train to hear Josie sing. Mr. Cheek himself had said that a man who heard her singing as he died would die happy.

The black girl in the mirror startled her less with every passing moment. She was not afraid of what she saw anymore. She stepped back and stretched out her arms and fingers, widened her eyes, and opened her mouth. She was too large to be contained by the mirror, and she could hardly wait to get out on the stage and show the audience what she could do. She would make them cry and win a regular spot on B.F. Keith’s bill.

She went out into the hall and walked toward the stage. She had barely a moment to take in Mr. Cheek’s changed appearance when he met her in the wings just before their cue. His face was dark as a goblin’s and, like a goblin’s (perhaps, for what did she know of goblins?), enraged with humiliation. His handsome temples, smeared with grease, his noble nose, dirtied, obscured. His beautiful mouth, slashed with crimson as though he had been bloodied in battle. A kiss from that mouth would leave a stain.

The piano went into the opening chords of “Beautiful Dreamer” as they stepped out onto the stage together, and even more startling than the change in Mr. Cheek’s appearance was the laughter that greeted them.

She thought the laughter would stop when they started to sing the haunting ballad, but it continued. She sang louder, threw more feeling into her voice, believing that if the audience heard her voice soaring and swooping among the notes, they would be captivated. She felt the music filling her chest and her skull, flung the notes out into the air as she had done when she made listeners weep at this song back in Nettleton, but the audience did not listen in hushed amazement. They kept laughing.

She glanced toward Mr. Cheek. Was he the problem? Could they see his rage beneath his makeup? Did they think his rage was comic?

Beautiful dreamer, she sang, gazing at Mr. Cheek with adoration as she completed the song. He rested his head on his hands in a mockery of sleep, and when she sang Awake unto me, he opened his eyes wide and shook his head as though he was rousing himself, but that was not the kind of awakening she meant. She wanted him to awaken to her, to recognize her feelings for him and return them, but she saw that he was simply trying to get through the act, to keep from drowning in the humiliation Keith had thrust upon him.

She turned back to the audience and tried to win them with a delicate curtsy, but they laughed harder than ever. She glanced toward the wings and saw Keith. Not even his moustache was smiling, and his look told her that if she and Mr. Cheek couldn’t get control of the audience, their act was a failure.

Stupidly stupid, or stupid and loose, Mr. Cheek had said. She looked toward the audience. Blinded by the stage lights, she could make out only a few faces in the front rows, and beyond that, darkness, but as she stared into that darkness, she understood that in this makeup, in these costumes, the most beautiful music could only be hilarious.

The piano played the opening bars of “Hard Times.” She started to sing. As we pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears/Let us all taste the hungers of the poor. It was a sad, sweet song, but she threw everything she had ever known or thought about it into the darkness and twisted her face into a mummery of grief. She shook her hands in the air. She rolled her eyes and mugged. The audience was still laughing, but now she was making them laugh. Mr. Cheek looked at her, looked at her at last. In his eyes she saw contempt mixed with grudging admiration. Loose, he mouthed, and she shook her hips when she sang As we seek mirth, and beauty, and music light and gay.

She reached out and Mr. Cheek took her hand in his. It was the move they had rehearsed. He spun her around and she saw Keith in the wings again, but now the fingers of his right hand were tapping those of his left. The precisely waxed tips of his moustache pointed upward, and so did the corners of his mouth. She knew he would keep them on the bill.

As they finished the song, there was a roaring in her head, a roar louder than the applause, and she thought perhaps this was the sound that Bob Cole heard when he performed, the music he tried to transmit to the audience, and she wondered whether the roar was a cry of triumph or a howl of pain. She bowed once, twice, three times, and then Mr. Cheek grabbed her hand so they could run off the stage together. It was the first time he had reached for her on his own, not as part of an act, since she had arrived unbidden on his doorstep in Boston.

“Well done,” Keith said as they ran past him, and Mr. Cheek smiled, but the paint on his face made it impossible to tell whether the smile was bitter or happy.

“Miss Hyde,” he said when they reached her dressing room door. For a moment she thought he was going to kiss her, but she didn’t want him to kiss her, not now, not like this, and she pulled away without looking at him. She fell into her dressing room and slammed the flimsy door behind her. She did not turn up the gaslights or look into the mirror as she smeared cold, white cream over her skin to melt away the grease and the ashes.

separatorLynne Weiss has lived in many different places, including Vermont, NYC, Montana, France, Germany, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, finally giving up the chase and settling in Massachusetts where she earned her MFA from UMass Amherst. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review; Larcom Review; Brain, Child; The Common OnLine, the Ploughshares blog, the PANK blog, the Review Review blog, and Radcliffe Magazine. As a writer and editor in the educational publishing industry, her mission as a writer is to create literary fiction from the overlooked and forgotten–or intentionally hidden–history of the United States.

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