FRIDAY FICTION 
A short story
by Zadie Smith
WELL, you certainly don’t go out anyplace less than dressed, not these days. Can’t let anybody mistake you for that broken, misused little girl: Eleanora Fagan1. No. Let there be no confusion. Not in the audience or in your old man, in the maître d’or the floor manager, the cops or the goddam agents of the goddam I.R.S.2 You always have your fur3, present and correct, hanging off your shoulders just so. Take back your mink4, take back your pearls. But you don’t sing that song, it’s not in your key. Let some other girl sing it. The type who gets a smile from a cop even if she’s crossing Broadway in her oldest Terylene5 housedress. You don’t have that luxury. Besides, you love that mink! Makes the state of things clear. In fact—though many aren’t hip to this yet—not only is there no more Eleanora, there isn’t any Billie, either. There is only Lady Day. Alligator bag, three rows of diamonds nice and thick on your wrist—never mind that it’s three o’clock in the afternoon. You boil an egg in twinset6 and pearls.
THEY got you holed up in Newark for the length of this engagement, and one day the wife of the super says to you, So you can’t play New York no more, huh? Who cares? To me, you always look like lady. She’s Italian. She gets it. No judgment. She says, I look after you. I be your mother. God bless her, but your daughter days are done. And if a few sweet, clueless bobby-soxers7, happy as Sunday, stop you on 110th to tell you how much they loved you at Carnegie Hall, how much they loved you on “The Tonight Show,” try your best not to look too bored, take out your pearl-encrusted cigarette box and hand them a smoke. Girl, you must give away twenty smokes a day. You give it all away, it streams from you, like rivers rolling to the sea: love, music, money, smokes. What you got, everybody wants—and most days you let ’em have it. Sometimes it’s as much as you can do to keep ahold of your mink.
IT’s not that you don’t like other women, exactly, it’s only that you’re wary8. And they’re wary of you right back. No surprise, really. Most of these girls live in a completely different world. You’ve visited that world on occasion, but it’s not home. You’re soon back on the road. Meanwhile they look at you and see that you’re unattached—even when you’re hitched9— they see you’re floating, that no one tells you when to leave the club, and there’s nobody crying in a cot10 waiting for you to pick them up and sing a lullaby11. No, nobody tells you who to see or where to go, and if they do, you don’t have to listen, even when you get a sock to the jaw12. Now, the women you tend to meet? They don’t know what to do with that. They don’t know what to do with the God-blessed child, with the girl that’s got her own, who can stay up drinking with the clarinet player till the newspaper boys hit the corners. And maybe one of these broads is married to that clarinet player. And maybe the two of them have a baby and a picket fence13 and all that jazz. So naturally she’s wary. You can understand that. Sure.
And you’ve always been —well, what’s the right term for it? A man’s lady? Men are drawn to you, all kinds of men, and not just for the obvious. Even your best girlfriends are men, if you see what I mean, yes, you’ve got your little gang of dear boys who aren’t so very different from you, despite appearances: they got nobody steady to go home to, either. So if some lover man breaks your heart, or your face, you can trust in your little gang to be there for you, more often than not, trust them to come round to wherever you’re at, with cigarettes and alcohol, and quote Miss Crawford14, and quote Miss Stanwyck15 , and make highballs16, and tell you that you really oughta get a dog. Honey, you should get a dog. They never doubt you’re Lady Day—matter of fact, they knew you were She before you did.
You get a dog.
WOMEN are wary, lover men come and go and mostly leave you waiting, and, truth be told, even those dear boys who make the highballs have their own thing going on, more often than not. But you’re not afraid to look for love in all kinds of places. Once upon a time there was that wild girl Tallulah, plus a few other ladies, back in the day, but there was no way to be in the world like that, not back then —or no way you could see— and anyhow most of those ladies were crazier than a box of frogs. Nobody’s perfect. Which is another way of saying there’s no escape from this world. And so sometimes, on a Friday night, after the singing is over and the clapping dies down, there’s simply no one and nothing to be done. You fall back on17 yourself. Backstage empties out, but they’re still serving. You’re not in the mood for conversation.
Later, you’ll open your vanity case and take a trip on the light fantastic —but right at this moment you’re grateful for your little dog. You did have a huge great dog, a while back, but she was always knocking glasses off the side tables, and then she went and died on you, so now you got this tiny little angel. Pepi18. A dog don’t cheat, a dog don’t lie. Dogs remind you of you: they give everything they’ve got, they’re wide open to the world. It’s a big risk! There are people out there who’ll kick a little half-pint dog like Pepi just for something to do. And you know how that feels. This little dog and you? Soul mates. Where you been all my life? He’s like those dogs you read about, that sit on their master’s grave for years and years and years. Recently, you had a preview of this. You were up in the stratosphere, with no body at all, floating, almost right there with God, you were hanging off the pearly gates, and nobody and nothing could make you come back. Some fool slapped you, some other fool sprayed seltzer19 in your face—nothing. Then this little angel of a dog licked you right in your eye socket and you came straight back to earth just to feel it, and three hours after that you were on a stage, getting paid. Dogs are too good for this world.
MAYBE a lot of people wouldn’t guess it but you can be the most wonderful aunt, godmother, nursemaid, when the mood takes you. You can spot a baby across a room and make it smile. That’s a skill! Most people don’t even try to develop it! People always telling these put-upon babies what to do, what to think, what to say, what to eat. But you don’t ask anything at all from them —and that’s your secret. You’re one of the few who just like to make a baby smile. And they love you for it, make no mistake, they adore you, and all things being equal you’d stay longer if you could, you’d stay and play, but you’ve got bills to pay.
Matter of fact, downstairs right this moment there’s five or six of these business-minded fellows, some of them you know pretty well, some you don’t, some you never saw before in your life, but they’re all involved in your bills one way or another, and they say if you don’t mind too much they’d like to escort you to the club. It’s only ten blocks, but they’d like to walk you there. I guess somebody thinks you’re not going to get there at all without these—now, what would you call them? Chaperons20. Guess somebody’s worried. But with or without your chaperons you’ll get there, you always get there, and you’re always on time, except during those exceptions when exceptional things seem to happen which simply can’t be helped. Anyway, once you open your mouth all is forgiven. You even forgive yourself. Because you are exceptional, and so exceptions must be made. And isn’t the point that whenever a lady turns up onstage she’s always right on time?
HAIR takes a while, face takes longer. It’s all work, it’s all a kind of armor21. You got skinny a while back and some guys don’t like it, one even told you that you got a face like an Egyptian death mask now. Well, good! You wear it, it’s yours. Big red lips and now this new high ponytail bouncing around —the gardenias are done, the gardenias belonged to Billie— and if somebody asks you where exactly this new long twist of hair comes from you’ll cut your eyes at whoever’s doing the asking and say, Well, I wear it so I guess it’s mine. It’s my hair on my goddam head. It’s arranged just so around my beautiful mask —take a good look! Because you know they’re all looking right at it as you sing, you place it deliberately in the spotlight, your death mask, because you know they can’t help but seek your soul in the face, it’s their instinct to look for it there. You paint the face as protection. You draw the eyebrows, define the lips. It’s the border between them and you. Otherwise, everybody in the place would think they had permission to leap right down your throat and eat your heart out.
PEOPLE ask: What’s it like standing up there? It’s like eating your own heart out. It’s like there’s nobody out there in the dark at all. All the downtown collectors and the white ladies in their own fancy furs love to talk about your phrasing —it’s the fashion to talk about your phrasing— but what sounds like a revolution to others is simple common sense to you. All respect to Ella22, all respect to Sarah23, but when those gals open their mouths to sing, well, to you it’s like someone just opened a brand-new Frigidaire24. A chill comes over you. And you just can’t do it like that. Won’t. It’s obvious to you that a voice has the same work to do, musically speaking, as the sax or the trumpet or the piano. A voice has got to feel its way in. Who the hell doesn’t know that? Yet somehow these people don’t act like they know it, they always seem surprised. They sit in the dark, drinking Martinis, in their mink, in their tux25. People are idiots. You wear pearls and you throw them before swine, more or less. Depends what pearls, though, and what swine. Not everybody, for example, is gonna get “Strange Fruit26.” Not every night. They’ve got to be deserving —a word that means a different thing depending on the night. You told somebody once, I only do it for people who might understand and appreciate it. This is not a June-Moon-Croon-Tune. This song tells a story about pain and heartache. Three hundred years of heartache! You got to turn each room you play into a kind of church in order to accommodate that much pain. Yet people shout their requests from their tables like you’re a goddam jukebox. People are idiots. You never sing anything after “Strange Fruit,” either. That’s the last song no matter what and sometimes if you’re high, and the front row look rich and stupid and dull27, that’s liable to be your only song. And they’ll be thankful for it! Even though it’s not easy for them to listen to and not easy for you to sing. When you sing it you have been described as punishing, you have been described as relentless28. Well, you’re not done with that song till you’re done with it. You will never be done with it. It’ll be done with you first.
IN the end, people don’t want to hear about dogs and babies and feeling your way into a phrase, or eating your heart out— people want to hear about you as you appear in these songs. They never want to know about the surprise you feel in yourself, the sense of being directed by God, when something in the modulation of your throat leaps up, like a kid reaching for a rising balloon, except most kids miss while you catch it —yes, you catch it almost without expecting to— landing on an incidental note, a perfect addition, one you never put in that phrase before, and never heard anyone else do, and yet you can hear at once that it is perfection. Perfection! It has the sound of something totally inevitable —it’s better than Porter29, it’s better than Gershwin30. In a moment you have written over their original versions finally and completely…
No, they never ask you about that. They want the cold, hard facts. They ask dull questions about the songs, about which man goes with which song in your mind, and if they’re a little more serious they might ask about Armstrong31 or Basie32 or Lester33. If they’re sneaky34 with no manners, they’ll want to know if chasing the drink or the dragon made singing those songs harder or sweeter. They’ll want to know about your run-ins35 with the federal government of these United States. They’ll want to know if you hated or loved the people in your audience, the people who paid your wages, stole your wages, arrested you once for fraternizing with a white man, jailed you for hooking, jailed you for being, and raided your hospital room, right at the end, as you lay conversing with God. They are always very interested to hear that you don’t read music. Once, you almost said—to a sneaky fellow from the Daily News, who was inquiring —you almost turned to him and said Motherfucker I AM music. But a lady does not speak like that, however, and so you did not.
Zadie Smith has contributed numerous short stories, nonfiction pieces, and a personal history —Dead Man Laughing, about her father’s love of comedy— since first appearing in The New Yorker in 1999. Her body of work includes four acclaimed novels, White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty (which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Orange Prize for fiction), and, most recently, NW, an excerpt from which, entitled The Embassy of Cambodia, won a 2014 ASME National Magazine award for fiction. Smith is also the author of an essay collection, Changing My Mind, and a nonfiction book about writing, Fail Better, and edited an anthology of sex writing entitled Piece of Flesh.
AUDIO: Zadie Smith reads.
Source: The New Yorker